The Newbies Guide to Outdoor Christmas Decorating

By Kelli Harvey | Updated Jul 17, 2020
Beginner Guide to Outdoor Christmas Decorating

How to Use This Guide: If this is your first dive into decorating outside for Christmas, we recommend you start by reading through this entire guide. For most readers this will probably take 15-20 minutes. Then, bookmark this page or save it to a pinterest board and revisit it when you're ready to begin planning your outdoor Christmas display.

Even experienced holiday decorator's can pick up a few pointers in this guide, plus it's a fun read -- we know because we wrote it, and we always laugh at our own jokes. Oh, and one more thing: if you've been there, done that, and learned a few things along the way when it comes to outdoor Christmas decorating, we would love to see your best tips and tricks for beginners in the comments!

Outdoor Decorating Guide Quick Links

Sometimes it's fun to be spontaneous. This is not one of those times. Clark Griswold planned out his entire outdoor Christmas display complete with 25,000 incandescent bulbs, and it was still a bit of a disaster. But you have one really important advantage that he didn't -- this guide.

Don't know who Clark Griswold is? Then step one for you is to go watch Christmas Vacation. It's a classic and a good example of what not to do when it comes to installing outdoor Christmas lights and decorations! For everyone else, step one starts with ideas.

Grab your smartphone or camera, something for taking notes if you want, and dress weather appropriate, because we're about to take a trip outside for a few minutes. Before we even begin to discuss outdoor Christmas decorating ideas, or types of lights, or installation tips and tricks, you'll need to familiarize yourself with the exterior elements of your home.

Right now you're probably thinking: "I live here, I drive up to it every day, I know what my house looks like. Next step, please!"

But you'll have to trust us here. It's really important to look at your house from a Christmas decorating perspective, and we hear a little fresh air is good for the imagination.

Planning Outdoor Christmas Decorations

1. Look at your home from a wide angle view
Let's take a look at your house from a larger perspective. Maybe head to the curb or cross over to the other side of the street if it's safe to do so and take in what your house looks like from a wide angle perspective. If you don't already have a photo somewhere easily accessible, go ahead and take a picture of your house from this angle. Depending on the type of trees and foliage you have and the time of year you are in right now, you may also need to consider what the natural surroundings will look like in November and December. Count how many windows you have and note their location.

2. Get a good look at your roof
How many peaks does your roof have? Are any of the eaves (overhangs) horizontal? Do you have gutters? What about shingles? If you don't have a clear image focused on your roof, take one now.

3. Take in your landscape, walkways, and driveway
How many trees are in your yard? Do they have a very tall trunk like a Sweetgum or Palm Tree, or multiple trunks and lower branches like an Oak or Crepe Myrtle? Are there any evergreen trees or shrubs with no visible trunk? Do you have bushes anywhere in the yard? Does your yard have any garden beds or interesting contours? Take note of any walkways and the driveway as well. These are all places that Christmas lights and decorations could go.

4. Examine your porch and front door (s)
Do you have a covered porch with columns and railings? If covered, does your porch have a gutter or shingles? Is your front door a single or double? Are there stairs leading up to your door?

5. Don't forget power
Exterior plug outlets will become really important when the time comes to power your outdoor Christmas light display. Figuring out just how many, if any, exterior outlets you have now will help you avoid any unexpected complications during installation. Walk around the outside of your home and identify where your primary plug outlets are located.

Now that you've spent some time getting to know your exterior spaces from a decorator's point of view, it's time for the really fun part. Let's decide what to do with all those potential locations where lights and decorations could go! Before you even found this page, you probably had some ideas or plans for where you wanted to hang outdoor Christmas lights and the theme or style of outdoor Christmas decorations you might use. After walking around your yard, it's possible that this mental idea list has grown or changed, so now that you're back inside, we'll want to gather all those potential options neatly in one place.

Blue & Green LED Outdoor Christmas Decorations
Blue & Green LED Outdoor Christmas Decorations

First, either print out the widest angle photo of your house that you have or draw a sketch of your home (this can be rough, we won't judge). If you prefer to keep things digital and use editing software, that works too. You'll be adding notes directly onto this image when we start measuring locations in a later step, so choose the medium that's easiest for you. This is also a great time to grab a cup of coffee or your favorite beverage and get comfy. We'll wait...

Are you settled in? Awesome! With the picture of your home in front of you, start searching online for ideas based on locations (roof, yard, porch) or themes (candy cane, snowflake, rainbow). Before diving too far into your search, decide where you want to gather all the ideas you like. This could be a handwritten list, a google doc with links, or a pinterest board - your choice!

Here are a few potential searches you might try:
Christmas Roof Ideas
Christmas Yard Decorating Ideas
Christmas Porch Ideas

You can also visit our in-house decorating resources by clicking the images below, each one is full of outdoor decorating ideas and photos!

Outdoor Christmas Decorating Ideas

Can you believe how many amazing outdoor Christmas decorating ideas are out there? It's impressive and possibly a little intimidating at first. If your brain is overloaded with options, this next step will help you narrow things down and focus your energy into the locations and items you want most. Remember, you're just starting out, so while it might be tempting to do all the things, it's also a good idea to take this Christmas decorating adventure a few steps at a time.

In this phase of planning we'll help you decide where you want to decorate and the type of lights and decor you might use for each location. We also won't let you forget about accessories that may be needed; they aren't as fun as lights and decor, but these items are equally important to a successful outdoor Christmas display.

Popular Christmas Lights By Location

After browsing around for ideas and looking through the decorating guides we linked earlier, you may already be familiar with many of the most popular Christmas light styles and decorations. The list below can be used for quick reference as you make final decisions on which lights you'll use for your display.

Roof Lights & Walkway Lights - C7 & C9 Christmas Lights, Icicle Lights (popular on roofs but can even be hung from shepherds hooks for walkway lighting), Walkway Trees, Rope Light

Columns & Railings - Mini Lights, Icicle Lights

Lights for Wrapping Trees - Wide Angle 5mm LED Mini Lights are most popular for their intensity, however any mini light will work for wrapping trees. C7 light bulbs are also used for wrapping large trunks and evergreen trees.

Uniform Bushes & Tree Trunks - Net Lights and Trunk Wrap Lights

Christmas Light Visual Guides

LED or Incandescent Lights?

During your time browsing you may have had questions about the differences between LED and Incandescent lights and why you might choose one type over the other when decorating outside for Christmas. First, we don't recommend mixing the two light types in one display, so whichever option you choose it is highly suggested that you stick with the same type for all areas of your outdoor Christmas display. Not only are there some distinct visual differences between LED and Incandescent lights, but issues can also arise very quickly with power consumption when it comes to mixing the two. We've highlighted some key comparisons between the two light types below.

Christmas Light Wattage

Power Consumption -The biggest difference between incandescent and LED lights is that LEDs are energy efficient and use significantly less power which will allow you to plug several times more lights into one outlet than you can with incandescent bulbs. Additionally, LED Christmas bulbs are cool to the touch, whereas incandescent bulbs give off heat almost instantly.
Longevity - Incandescent lights will typically last between 1-3 seasons. LED lights can last up to 5 seasons or more depending on their quality.
Warranty - Because they are expected to last longer, many quality LED lights carry a multi-year warranty. Depending on the manufacturer, incandescent lights may carry a 1 year seasonal use warranty.
Assortment - As LED Christmas lights continue to gain popularity there are more and more styles and technological advancements available which will allow you to make completely custom displays. Incandescent Christmas lights have a more limited range of offerings which primarily focus on traditional colors and styles without much variation.
Budget - Incandescent lights cost less overall. If you're just starting out, this may be a huge deciding factor. If you prefer LEDs and are able to make an investment in them now, we recommend doing so as it will likely save you money in the long run. However, we understand that this may not be possible depending on your current budget.

The Basics About Christmas Light Power Usage

A typical household circuit can include several plug outlets, internal lighting fixtures or built-in appliances all on the same circuit. This means that whenever you plug your Christmas lights into the wall they are sharing that circuit's capacity with anything else that may also be drawing power. If very few things are on the circuit you will have more wattage capacity to work with. However, if your circuit already has a number of items drawing power from it, you may begin "tripping your breakers" in the fuse box. This happens when your wattage exceeds the amp capacity of the circuit.

A few notes about household circuits:

  • Most household circuits are 15 or 20 amps

  • It is recommended that all circuits never exceed 80% of their max wattage capacity

  • 15 amp circuits support 1,800 watts (80% capacity is 1,440 max watts)

  • 20 amp circuits support 2,400 watts (80% capacity is 1,920 max watts)

How Does Wattage Relate to Amperage?

Watts measure a unit of energy. Amps measure a unit of current. Amp capacity refers to the total amps that can be supported.

Amp capacity in string lights determines how many bulbs can be used in a single length of wire. This typically applies when stringers and C7 or C9 bulbs are sold separately and lighting is customizable. All stringers and spools at Christmas Lights, Etc list amp capacity in the product specifications.

Amp capacity in a household circuit determines how many total watts can be plugged into a full circuit, regardless of how many outlets the circuit contains. Outlets connected to a single circuit share that circuits Amp capacity, so be sure to also take into account other items running of the same circuit, such as lamps, electronics, or appliances. Staying within 80% of the amp capacity of a circuit ensures the breakers don't trip.

How to Calculate Total Amps

When using Christmas light strings where the bulbs are hard wired into the socket or where the bulbs are screwed into the socket, total amps is usually listed in the UL tag near total watts.

When total amps is not provided, first calculate total watts, and then calculate for amps.

  1. Calculate total watts by multiplying the watts per bulb by the number of bulbs on a string

  2. Calculate amps by dividing total wattage by 120 volts (US household outlets carry 120 volts)

How Many Light Strings Can You Connect End to End?

String lights come in many styles and lengths. The more lights on the string, the more electricity they use. Christmas string lights often come with plugs at the end that enable you to connect additional sets. Traditional incandescent mini string lights often have a small limit on how many you can connect together. Depending on the light count, it could be as limited as five to ten sets connected together. This limitation historically made it difficult for the average homeowner to do outdoor light displays because it required so many extra plug outlets and extension cords. However, LED string lights use so little power compared to incandescent lights that you can connect up to 40 sets end to end depending on the set specifications. And, with some LED string lights that use even less power, you can connect up to 90 sets end to end. While the number of strings you can connect varies by the product and the manufacturers specifications, LED string lights enable people to make remarkable outdoor displays because so many more can be used more easily.

One more thing... If your display is very large or you plan to use all incandescent lights, we recommend taking some time to calculate the power needs for your entire display by visiting our Christmas light wattage and power resources linked below.

Christmas Light Power Usage Guides

At this point you probably have a pretty good idea of which outdoor locations you want to decorate and the lights, decorations, and colors or theme you want to utilize. It's now time to revisit the sketch or picture of your home taken from the widest view possible. Head outside with the picture of your house, a measuring tape, and a ladder if needed to begin safely measuring the exterior areas of your home where you plan to decorate.

We recommend completing this step with another person to help with taking down measurements and to hold the ladder if necessary. Measurements should be added directly to the image or sketch of your home if possible. Don't forget to measure the circumference of trees, determine the dimensions of bushes and shrubs, and calculate the entire length on both sides of walkways and the driveway. If you don't want to use a ladder, you can estimate the length of your roof by measuring the base of your house, just make sure to account for any peaks or unusual architectural elements that aren't linear.

Take Measurements for Christmas Lights
Add Measurements to Your House Image

Create a Prioritized Shopping List

So far you've looked at the exterior of your home with a decorator's eye, gathered outdoor Christmas decorating ideas, and measured your space. Now it's time to create a prioritized and itemized list of each location that you plan to decorate in order of importance to you. Your list will also include the amount of lights or decorations you'll need for that space and any accessories that you may need in each location, as well as the current price for each item. If you're creating this list on a computer, we also recommend adding links to the products you plan on purchasing for easy access later.

Example Prioritized Shopping List

  1. Decorating Location - Roof
  2. Exact Number & Type of Lights - 100 ft. Multicolor C9 Bulbs on Green Wire ($199.99)
  3. Accessories Needed - 100 All-In-One Light Clips ($11.99) + 50 foot outdoor rated extension cord ($15.99)

Calculate the total cost of your entire outdoor Christmas decorating project based on the prices you wrote down on your prioritized list. This will give you a more realistic idea of what kind of budget you will need. Depending on your budget, you may decide at this point to break your project up into smaller phases by decorating one or two locations this year and saving the others for next year. Alternatively, you may find that you have some room in your budget to add some extras.

Outdoor Christmas Decorations
Outdoor Christmas Decorations

When is the best time to buy Christmas lights?

We are asked this question often, and the answer is not as straightforward as you might expect. The best deals for Christmas lights can usually be found over Black Friday and Cyber Monday, however the late November date for these sales means that many popular items could potentially run out of stock. If you want to ensure you get exactly what you want, we recommend shopping earlier in the season. Christmas Lights, Etc has special sale promotions throughout the year so there are good deals to be found year round for those planning ahead.

If you're planning early for next year, After Christmas Sales are perfect for buying ahead, although the chance of inventory outages is even higher during this period. Finally, some stores, ours included, offer Christmas in July sales. A lot of inventory for the upcoming season should be restocked at this point in the summer which makes it a great time to buy and guarantee you'll get what you need! We recommend signing up for email lists to be notified of any upcoming sales and promotions.

Purchasing Christmas Lights & Decor

Using your larger prioritized list, create a simplified shopping list. If you've broken your decorating plans into phases, include only the items you want to purchase for this season on your shopping list as well as any accessories and storage solutions you'll need. Note the exact number you need to purchase for each item, and when the time comes to make your purchase, you can check the items off the list as you add them into your cart. It might seem like a lot of extra effort, but this method will guarantee that nothing is missed!

With your outdoor Christmas lights and decor purchased, it's time to set yourself up for an easy install. The advice below has been tested, repeated, and confirmed to be essential by experienced Christmas light installation professionals. It can be tempting to cut corners in order to save a little time or for convenience, but if you take these extra steps prior to your Christmas light installation, we promise you won't regret it!

Super Important Pre-Installation Advice

Read through these now, you'll thank us later!

  • TEST EVERYTHING! Bold and Caps? This must be serious! No matter when you purchase your lights, test them right away. If anything is not working contact the company you bought them from immediately to initiate a return or replacement. If you purchase items in an after Christmas sale in January and you wait until it's time to decorate in November to open the shipping boxes, only to discover something is broken, you may not be able to get a refund or replacement now that 9 months have passed since your purchase. This may seem like common sense, but you'd be surprised how often this exact scenario happens!
  • Keep original product packaging until the entire installation is complete and maybe even for a few weeks after to ensure your lights are working properly. The packaging may be needed in the event that you have to make a return or exchange.
  • When the day comes for decorating, begin by placing lights, decor, extension cords, and accessories in each location you plan to use them. This extra step will mean less trips back and forth to grab things you may have forgotten! You can even use your prioritized list from earlier to help you with this step.
  • Some decorators prefer to install all the light clips on their lights before they head up on the ladder to hang them. Depending on how snug the clips are on the bulbs and strings this may save you time or it could lead to a lot of clips falling off in the installation process; you'll have to use your best judgement here. Regardless of what you decide, if you're not trying to get an intense leg workout in, we recommend having extra clips easily accessible either in a pocket or tool belt to account for any unexpected needs that may arise while you're hanging lights on the roof.
  • Items that might come in handy with any installation include sharp utility scissors, box cutters, zip ties, outdoor rated electrical tape (just in case!), and measuring tape.

It might surprise you to see that the planning phase of this beginner's guide is significantly more in depth than the pre-installation and installation phases. That's because installing Christmas lights is relatively easy as long as you've accounted for power needs and have all of the lights and installation tools you'll need!

The location and type of lights or decor you decide to use will determine the best method of installation for each. Because there can be a lot of variables when it comes to creating outdoor Christmas light displays, we encourage you to visit the installation guides we've referenced below based on where you plan to decorate. You should also take some time to visit the other resources we've placed throughout this guide. These resources provide a deep dive into the installation process for their specified subject matter and are full of helpful location based information and outdoor Christmas decorating ideas.

Take a look at the individual resources that best fit your personal decorating plans and bookmark anything you want to reference later. Have questions? Leave us a comment below and our community of seasoned outdoor Christmas decorators will be happy to help you!

Outdoor Christmas Decorating & Installation Guides

If you read this entire guide from beginning to end, Congratulations and thank you for sticking with it! You are now ready to tackle your first big outdoor Christmas decorating adventure.

Bookmark this guide so you can always reference it when you need it and share it with your friends who might find it helpful too!