Christmas is my favorite time of year. And it’s not just for the obvious reasons of religion, family, presents, and the occasional hot toddy, either. When I gaze upon the holiday spirit with my lighting-designer hat firmly affixed upon my head, the only emotion that can describe my feeling is pure delight. Imagine, an entire season dedicated to folks doing their best to follow in your professions footsteps! If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m talking about Christmas lights.
I enjoy seeing all the various displays put together. When driving, I even go to the extent of choosing varying and unique routes to maximize my Christmas light viewing! This often leads to some truly spectacular homes that do not disappoint. When sharing this passion with others, they often provide leads of Christmas lighting displays that I ‘need’ to go see. Currently on this list is a home atop a local mountain that supposedly has more than 100 illuminated deer in the woods. And this doesn’t even include the travel to regional Christmas lighting displays that my family takes to get into the holiday spirit.
So, because my “Love of Lights” extends to all forms, I thought that I would share some hints, techniques, and a little history about the wonderful world of Christmas lighting.
Christmas Lighting Safety
Safety first…or if you are a fan of Mike Rowe (the former host of Dirty Jobs), Safety Third (if you don’t know what I am talking about, check out this short video). Here are a few safety tips that will aid in keeping you and your family – and home! – safe during the holiday season:
- Inspect your Christmas lights thoroughly before installation. Specifically look for frayed wires, broken lamps, bent electrical prongs, or any physical damage to the string of lights. If the wiring seems brittle and is flaking apart, it is time to replace the string.
- Consider using LED lamps and replacing your incandescent lighting. LED lights use much less energy, although they provide a different quality of light compared with traditional incandescent lights. This helps not only on the cost of lighting installation, but also on the amount of current going through the wiring. Wiring is sized to carry a certain amount of energy, measured in current. Use too much and the wiring can heat up and ultimately fail, in the worst case causing a fire. This is known as an overloaded circuit. With incandescent lights, you are limited to 2-4 strings connected together, depending on the quantity of lights, before you have too much current. LED lights can have as many as 22 strings before you approach the limit. Refer to the manufacturer’s instructions on your packaging for the actual maximum. (You kept the packaging, right?)
- Avoid creating tripping hazards. And no, this isn’t about tripping your circuit breaker. Getting power to where you need it often involves extension cords. Think about where and how you place cords. Sometimes we need to run across a walkway or other location that will create a potential tripping hazard. Can you run it a different route? Is there a different power source? Falls are the number one cause of unintentional home injuries, contributing to 662,000 annual hospital visits, according to 2010 data.
- Use ladders safely. You will potentially be using ladders to install your lighting. If you are going on a roof, use an extension ladder that extends at least 3’ above the roof lines. Have someone hold the ladder or properly secure it so that it does not tip or slide out from under you. Also make sure that you have the ladder installed on the correct angle. When using A-frame ladders, be sure that they are balanced on all four legs. Don’t overreach or stand above the manufacturer’s posted highest step.
- If it seems unsafe, it IS unsafe. Use your head. As great as Christmas lights are, you will not be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor from a hospital bed.
We all “get by with a little help from our friends” when doing something outside of our normal wheelhouse. Here are a few ideas to make things even more stunning than you originally planned:
- Make your Christmas tree sparkle like the stars by adding dimension and layers. Many people just wrap the lights in a conical pattern around the outside. This creates a very flat and two-dimensional look. Here is what I do: first, choose a base color (I like to use blue) and wrap the trunk of the tree. This adds lights ‘inside’ the tree canopy. Then choose a complementary color (I like to use traditional white with a little blue thrown in). Weave the lights in and out of the branches in a ‘snake’ pattern. This will fill the volume of the tree with lights and add dimension. Think about the night sky, how it twinkles with stars that are both near and far, large and small. We are trying to add this same texture by using the three-dimensional space.
- Choose a color theme. Are you going all white? White with solid accent colors? Colored lights all the way? Whatever appeals to you is best. Just keep it consistent. Do not decorate the left of the house in white and the right with colors. Mix and match in a relevant pattern. Lay out the lights you have and figure out which design makes the most sense.
- Don’t overdo it with the projection lights. Projection lighting is great and serves a purpose, but just throwing one of them in the front yard really does not show a lot of effort. Weave this equipment into the overall design. I recently moved into a new house, and decorated four days after moving in. However, I’ve realized that the right side of my house still needs some type of illumination. I have the choice to use a 25’ extension ladder to place lights at the eves or to use a projection light. The rest of the house is decorated with traditional lights, so I will use a projector to add balance to the overall design.
- Don’t be afraid to do a Griswold Christmas! Lighting can be elegant, eclectic, or over-the-top. Being over-the-top takes time and dedication, but will delight folks from near and far…well, maybe not your neighbors, so be sure to take them a nice bourbon or bottle of wine and they may not mind too much. The bottom line is, be you.
Christmas is a wonderful time of year. Religion, family, food, presents, and a general sense of joy. Christmas lighting cuts through the darkness of winter to bring joy to even the biggest scrooges of our day. Take the time to enjoy all the efforts of amateur lighting designers across the world. Take your family through neighborhoods and paths less-traveled. Share the joy of the spectacle and the elegance, and think about how YOU will make your display BIGGER and BETTER next year.
Craig Malesic is a Lighting Designer with JDB Illumination. He has designed Christmas lighting professionally. If you are a business or institution looking to make a splash during the holiday season, email or call Craig at 717.434.1558 and he will be happy to help illuminate your holiday! Just realize that corporate Christmas lighting design happens in August, not December!