Home Décor How to Put Lights on a Christmas Tree Like a Pro This Year

How to Put Lights on a Christmas Tree Like a Pro This Year

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For us decor-aholics, festooning a Christmas tree with baubles, ribbons, tinsel, keepsakes, and—yes—even lobsters, ranks among the most treasured of holiday traditions. But before the fun can begin, of course, you need to illuminate your tree, a task that can be—let’s face it—not so merry and bright due to tangled strands, burned-out bulbs, spousal squabbling, or Clark Griswold–level fiascos.

To save our sanity (and maybe even our relationships) this year, we decided to turn to the professionals for help. Enter Victoriya Tur​, the production manager for American Christmas, a professional lighting company that has been illuminating some of the country’s most iconic holiday landmarks—such as Rockefeller Center’s dazzling angels and Cartier’s glittering Manhattan flagship—since 1968. Tur’s Christmas season essentially begins as soon as the previous one wraps. While, in her case, achieving holiday magic can be a herculean effort (to the tune of thousands upon thousands of lights along Fifth Avenue), she reminds us: “To see peoples’ reactions is worth everything.” Here’s how to create your own Christmas to remember this year.

What Are the Best Christmas Lights?

Sally Anscombe//Getty Images

Whether you are lighting an artificial tree or the real McCoy, “the best lights to use are green wire lights with six-inch spacing, 50 bulbs per string,” Tur says. “These are the most comfortable to work with.”

Not only are these kinds of string lights readily available virtually everywhere during the holiday season (you can also pick the color or light temperature you want), the green wire handily helps the strands disappear into your boughs. Tur also advises working with mini lights, in lieu of larger bulbs. “These help your tree look bright,” she says. “You can add [larger lights like] C9 bulbs, G50s, G40s, if you want it to look different, but to make it bright, I would recommend the mini lights first.”

Tur also endorses using LED bulbs, which are not only brighter but pose fewer safety risks than old-school incandescent bulbs. “People love to use incandescent lights still—the type of lights that get hot super easily,” she says. If you do opt for them, “I would not recommend leaving the tree plugged in if you’re going out somewhere, because it’s dangerous.”

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How To Light a Real Christmas Tree

a happy couple in love in pajamas are preparing for the holiday, celebrating christmas and new year by decorating a christmas tree in the cozy interior of the house in winter in december
Elizaveta Starkova//Getty Images
  1. Get Out Your Lights To achieve the twinkliest of trees, Tur recommends using 13 sets of mini lights for a standard six-foot-tall tree. Pro Tip: For a megawatt tree, you can do another layer of larger bulbs (G50s or G40s are festive options) at the branch extremities, or save that space for ornaments. “It depends what you want your tree to look like,” Tur says.
  2. Check If the Lights Work Plug each strand into an outlet before even touching the tree. It will save you a huge headache later, Tur assures us.
  3. Start from the Bottom Up “Always,” Tur says, “because you have your outlet at the bottom, so you don’t have to run extension cords from the top.”
  4. Wind the Lights Around Your Tree Horizontally Gradually begin wrapping the lights around your tree, working your way up. Tur recommends keeping your lights illuminated as you work, a tactic that will help you avoid outages and also allow you to gauge your tree’s brightness in real time.
  5. Step Back As you bling out those branches, make sure to frequently pause and view your tree in its entirety to ensure that it has a uniform glow. “Check if the lights are distributed evenly before you continue to go up,” Tur says.
  6. When the Holidays Are Over “Start from the top and go all the way down,” she says, and—rather than wadding the attached strings into one gigantic ball—be sure to make small bundles as you work your way down and put them in your boxes. Your future self will thank you next Christmas.

How to Light An Artificial Tree

christmas tree at home
Evgenii Kryvoruchko / EyeEm//Getty Images
  1. Remember: Faux Does Not Mean Faux-Pas Though some people swear by a freshly cut Tannenbaum, Tur actually prefers working with artificial trees. They’re malleable, they’re naturally even, and—the best part—once you’ve illuminated them, you can leave the lights on year after year.
  2. Prepare Your Lights Many artificial trees will be divided into three sections. For a standard six-foot tree, Tur recommends that you devote six sets of lights for the bottom portion, five sets for the middle, and three sets for the top.
  3. Light Every Single Branch Just like on a real Christmas tree, you’ll want to start from the bottom to keep that extension cord in check (remember to keep those lights on as you work, too). But rather than wrap the tree horizontally, Tur recommends illuminating each branch from trunk to tip and back before moving to the next branch, following a spoke pattern. Illuminating each individual branch will not only enable you to maximize sparkle, but it will also allow you to fluff out the tree the way you want later. “It’s easier to make it look even,” she says.
  4. When the Holidays Are Over Rejoice—you’ve already done the hard part! Simply keep the lights on the tree’s sections and gently put them into storage. “That’s why I like the artificial tree,” Tur says, “because you light it once and it’s ready to go for the next five years.”

Helpful Hints

  • DO: Use zip ties. To keep those lights where you want them, Tur recommends buying small green zip ties to fasten your twinklies in place.
  • DON’T: Connect more than 20 sets. This is just asking for a blown fuse, Tur says.
  • DO: Conceal unsightly plugs or connections with green electrical tape. Because, as Mies van der Rohe told us, God is in the details.
  • DO: Tape down your extension cords with gaffer tape. This will eliminate unsightly wires and tripping hazards.
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  • You’ve Got Bald Patches It happens: Your Fraser fir is missing some fur, or your lighting job looks a little uneven after an eggnog or six. If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to strategically rotate your conifer toward a wall. “It’s the thing everyone does, even us!” Tur reveals.
  • A String Goes Out It’s frustrating, but it also happens—likely because you’ve connected too many strings of lights (see tips above). First, assess the lights’ fuses. “Check if they’re burned—there will be a dark color there—and if they are, you’ve probably connected too many sets together,” Tur says. “You can try to change this. Mini lights always have extra fuses attached to them in a small plastic bag.” A dud strand of lights can also be the result of a cut wire. If that’s the case, get a new string of lights. “I would not recommend fixing it because you have to know how to work with electrics—it could start a fire,” Tur warns.
Anna Fixsen, Deputy Digital Editor at ELLE DECOR, focuses on how to share the best of the design world through in-depth reportage and online storytelling. Prior to joining the staff, she has held positions at Architectural Digest, Metropolis, and Architectural Record magazines. elledecor.com 

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