Lighting the Christmas Tree

Over the years I’ve become quite adept at designing lighting for Christmas trees. I’ve designed numerous trees for various displays and thought I would share my tips for lighting a Christmas tree. If the lighting is done right, a Christmas tree will be beautiful before the first ornament is hung on a limb.

So how do you achieve this? By having enough light, enough variety to support the style you are working toward, and keeping cord exposure as minimal as possible. In my experience most people under-light their tree.  Most boxes suggest 100 lights per foot. However, trees are as varied in height and shape as people. A very thick, dense tree needs more lights per foot than a skinny, woodland tree. If you have a tree that is very rotund, thick, or dense (regardless of height), increase the lights by at least 50 lights per foot.

There are two instances when I recommend using minimal lights for lighting a Christmas tree:

  • If you have a tree that has the  sparse and open woodland style, then you can use less than the 100 lights per foot suggestion. With this type of tree having too many lights detracts from the tree because the cord takes over the tree even with using the wrapping technique I describe later in this post.
  • The second instance I recommend minimal lights is if you are going for a very simple, rustic feel. A few strands of larger bulbs (C7 or C9) loosely strung around the tree is quite simple and lovely.

Tips to consider when lighting your tree:

*Use mini-lights as a base for your tree not as the single source of light. This base will also be the largest number of lights on your tree.

*Add layers of lights to your tree by seeking out various bulb shapes and diffusers (little covers for mini-lights that change the shape of the emitted light). Layering light strands of varying sizes adds a lot of depth and interest to a tree. For example, on our family tree I layer strands of C7 bulbs and bubble lights over the mini-light base. And by  working off of a mini-light base, you won’t need to add as many alternate light strands to achieve a great effect. The size of the additional bulbs and length of light strands will determine how many to add. Larger bulbs and longer strand length generally means fewer additional strands of lights than smaller bulbs and/or shorter strands. For my eight foot tree I use 5 strands of bubble lights and two strands of C7 lights.

Multicolored lights featured on a vintage themed tree.

Multicolored lights featured on a vintage themed tree.

*When purchasing a variety of lights for your tree, be sure to consider how they will look as a whole. If you are using multicolor transparent mini-lights as the base, opaque C7s over the top will not work as well as their transparent counterparts since the colors are quite different.

*Are you a staunch clear/white lights supporter? Shake it up by tossing in a few strands of flicker bulbs. Flicker lights average about 7 bulbs per strand so the effect is quite subtle. They preserve the formality of trees lit with clear lights while also adding movement and the warmth of candle glow.  If you have children in your home, try adding a strand of novelty lights in fun shapes such as peppermints or snowflakes. It’s a great way to keep the clear lights you love while mixing in some fun for the little ones. Want to keep a more formal clear/white light look? Without a doubt adding in different shapes and sizes of clear and frosted bulbs lends such a lovely, snowy effect. Look for stars, faceted, or even snowball-like globe lights in two sizes for a snowy appearance. And to come back to the movement I spoke of earlier, adding in twinkle lights or bubble lights in clear/white adds a bit of fun and is still in keeping with the formality.

A flocked tree bedecked in a white mini lights base and accented with vintage style colorful bubble lights.

A flocked tree bedecked in a white mini lights base and accented with vintage style colorful bubble lights.

*Love the smell of a live tree? LED lights can be a big help here. Since 80% of the energy incandescent lights emit is heat, replacing them with LED lights can aid in preserving the moisture content in your tree not to mention the energy savings they provide. LED lights come in an array of bulb shapes and sizes so pick two or three to dress your tree or add a strand of novelty lights as your third option. Most novelty lights are still incandescent. However, if you’re using them as your third option, these lights will be fewer in number and still less heat than if you used all incandescent lights.

*When buying LED lights be sure to check the color in stores with displays before purchasing. Multicolor LED strands are often limited in color variety in stores. I recommend purchasing lights with that have 5 or 6 color varieties. Unfortunately 5 colors are more difficult to come by in stores. They are quite plentiful online however and I definitely recommend seeking them out. Four colors are most common in physical stores and the least desirable.  I purchased multicolor LEDs last year from Lowe’s not realizing at the time that LEDs came in different color collections. Unfortunately the ones I purchased are the four color type: red, blue, green and yellow – which is actually more yellow-orange than yellow. Take my mistake to heart and shop online. Those extra pink or purple lights included on the 5 and 6 strand lights really do add a nice depth of color. If you purchase clear LED strands, be sure to check the color. There are three types of clear LEDs: polar white, warm white and pure white. Polar white LEDs have a distinct bluish appearance that bring to mind old school fluorescent bulbs. Warm white LEDs mimic the color of traditional incandescent lights and pure white are just that – a very clean, clear pure white light. Again, check stores with displays to be sure you get the color you desire.

Techniques for the mini-light base:

There are a couple of techniques to use to add the mini-light base to your tree. The goal is to keep cords as hidden as possible. We do this by either wrapping the lights snuggly around the branch or weaving them down the branch.  A sparse tree generally needs some wrapping to keep the cord minimally exposed. Denser trees and trees with downward sloping branches can get away with weaving. Weaving is literally weaving the strand side to side across the branch and around each evergreen finger. There is no need to be perfect; you’re just trying to achieve an even distribution of lights while keeping the cords close to the branch structure. With both techniques you will need to work your way down the branch toward you and then back up the branch toward the trunk before moving to the next branch. It is more time consuming but the effect can’t be beat.

Following are a few websites dedicated to Christmas lights if you can’t find what you’re looking for in your local hardware or department stores.

Christmas light websites: (great site for bulb replacements) (another great site for bulb replacements)


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