Rock your windows, balcony and tree to make Santa proud.
No matter where you live, there are plenty of ways to get creative with Christmas lights. Apartment and condo dwellers may lack outdoor outlets, but can still beam festive flare to the neighborhood.
I grew up with parents who went wild with Christmas decor at our house. But now, decades later, I'm living the renter's life with children of my own. And that means finding creative ways to light up windows, doorways and balconies for the holidays. Here are some of my tips for displaying Christmas lights that are simple, cheap and still look professional. (You can also watch my tutorial in the video embedded above.)
Lights around a window are a super simple way to spread cheer — and you're going to want to buy some big, chunky bulbs to make sure everyone can see that cheer. That means size C7 or C9. And for anyone with an apartment or condo, you'll need to attach them on the inside border.
Stay away from incandescent bulbs for indoor decorating. I say that as someone who has bought them for years because, well, they're cheaper. But these bulbs get hot, and that's not good if the bulbs will touch anything -- or if you have kids or pets. The LED C9-size bulbs may cost a little more, but they're safer and more reliable. For my windows I used the Home Depot brand Home Accents, a multicolor LED strand of C9 bulbs marked as "super bright," and these are indistinguishable from incandescents from a distance.
For a large window, a strand of 25 lights should work well (about 16 feet in length). You'll also need clear, plastic, 3M Command Decorating Clips. A pack of 40 small hooks is more than plenty for one window. Stick one every six inches along the border, keeping the hooks in the same direction. Distance between hooks doesn't need to be exact. What matters is that you'll be able to keep the bulb cord taut and in a straight line as it hugs the edge, with bulbs facing outward in the same direction.
Wait at least 30 minutes for adhesive to set against the window border wall before attaching the light cord into the hooks. Make sure you plan where the plug end is going to attach to an extension cord before you begin.
Decorating the railing of a balcony can be tricky if there's no outdoor power outlet. But there are options.
If your balcony or outdoor area has a light fixture that uses a standard bulb, you're in luck. Take out the bulb and screw in a light socket adapter, which converts a light socket into two power outlets. (And you can still screw a bulb in the bottom.)
Now you have a way to power lights to put around a balcony railing. But don't just slop on a strand haphazardly — keep the bulbs in an orderly design. An easy method is to take a strand of C7 or C9 bulbs and make each bulb face upward on the railing, keeping the cord in a straight line. Use zip ties around each bulb to secure the strand snugly, with all bulbs all pointing up.
Be sure to test extension cords and lights before pinning them down with zip ties. Remember that light socket adapters use plugs with two prongs, so three-prong grounded extension cords won't work.
I also recommend covering open sockets with a strip of electrical tape, to prevent water from getting inside exposed slots.
If you don't have an outdoor light to turn into an outlet, go with battery-powered lights. I'm seeing a ton of choices this year at stores — several of which are marked safe for outdoor use. Some have timers that will automatically turn off lights after six hours. Some lights have options to switch between flashing and chaser effects.
This year I'm using a long rope of 100 micro dot LED lights to decorate the railing on my front steps. A rope light is simple to twist around the handrails. It cost me about $20 for one rope — but each strand takes six AA batteries. I'm also using two smaller strands of 20 C3-size LED lights to decorate some miniature tree bushes I bought for outside the front door. Those smaller outdoor-safe strands just take three batteries each.
I've been lighting these up every night for a week and haven't had to replace the batteries yet, but I'll update this post when I reach the end of the battery lifespan.
Today's fake, prelit trees are a cinch to set up, and they have fun effects. But I don't have room to store a fake tree, so I go with a fresh, real tree. This year, I tried out a high-tech strand of lights called Twinkly, and it brings next-level Christmas magic to a tree without any effort.
For my six-footer, I wrapped a 250-light strand around the tree, as I would any other strand of lights. This Generation II Twinkly strand of RGB LEDs, priced at around $120, is controlled by an app and requires Wi-Fi to work. Fire up the app and point your phone's camera at the tree for it to read where every light is sitting on the tree. Once it maps the location of every light, choose between various vivid light effects that fade, twinkle or rotate around the tree in cool patterns.
Switch your design on the fly with an app full of preset effects. Depending on my mood, I can have a rainbow fade cascade down from the top, or a candy-cane red and white swirl, or cheerful twinkling tropical carnival colors. Customize the speed, color and brightness, or design your own patterns. When you're spending a lot of time at home, you can keep things feeling fresh with a different light design every day.
When outlets are in hard-to-reach places, smart plugs can save you some trouble — and you don't need any smart speaker or hub to make them work for you.
Put a smart plug in an outlet, and attach your light strand to the smart plug. Now it can be turned on and off with an app, instead of needing you to strain to unplug extension cords at the end of the night. I use Amazon's Smart Plug ($25), which also can set lights to turn on and off with a timer. There's also a button on the side of the plug for others to control it without an app.