How to Put Lights on a Christmas Tree Correctly & Safely

A step-by-step guide to help you decorate your tree and avoid any mishaps

Updated June 3, 2021
Child playing with lights near Christmas tree

Decorating your real or artificial Christmas tree is a beautiful holiday tradition. However, the way you string the lights can be the difference between a gorgeous tree and a less-than-beautiful mess. Before you get started, make sure you know how to put lights on a Christmas tree properly. Whether you prefer to hang lights horizontally or vertically, it's an easy process that will help you create the prettiest Christmas tree ever this year.

Figure Out How Many Lights You Need for Your Christmas Tree

Before you start putting lights on the tree, you need to know how many to get. The number of lights can vary, depending on whether you're using mini bulbs like fairy lights or larger old-fashioned bulbs like C7 or C9. The size of your tree also matters, since decorating a small Christmas tree will require fewer lights than a large one.

Mini Bulbs

A general rule for mini bulbs is 100 lights per foot of tree. This is an estimate, and you may prefer more or fewer lights. Here are some common tree heights and the number of mini bulbs you'll need for each size.

Height Number
3 feet 300 bulbs
4 feet 400 bulbs
5 feet 500 bulbs
6 feet 600 bulbs
7 feet 700 bulbs
8 feet 800 bulbs
9 feet 900 bulbs
Illuminated Christmas Tree

Large Bulbs

If you're using larger LEDs or old-fashioned C7 or C9 bulbs, determining the number of lights to put on the tree is a little more complicated. The width of the tree matters here, since you won't be using as many lights. You can use this handy chart to help you figure out how many you need.

Height Narrow Tree Wide Tree
3 feet 30 45
4 feet 50 70
5 feet 80 100
6 feet 105 120
7 feet 115 135
8 feet 125 150
9 feet 140 180

How to Put Lights on a Christmas Tree Horizontally

No matter what type of lights you're using, the traditional way to put lights on a Christmas tree is draping them horizontally along the boughs. This process works for both real and artificial trees. The key here is to space the lights evenly and hide the cord as much as possible.

1. Test the Lights and Replace Dead Bulbs

Find a safe outlet near your tree and test the lights to make sure they work. To test them, simply plug them in and look for dead bulbs. There's nothing worse than getting the lights on the tree and then finding out one of the strands doesn't light up. If there are any burned-out bulbs, replace them at this time.

2. Start at the Base of the Trunk

Make sure you can easily reach a nearby outlet, and then begin wrapping the lights around the base of the trunk of your tree. Wrap all the way up to the top, but don't worry too much about the spacing. You're hiding the cord and allowing yourself to wrap from the top of the tree down without worrying about where the end with the plug will end up.

3. Work Down From the Top

Now that you have the lights at the top of the tree, begin weaving them over and under each branch of the tree. Don't clip any of the lights to the branches yet. You need to be able to adjust them if you want to. Try to space the lights evenly, but avoid creating any kind of pattern like a spiral. Place some lights deeper into the tree and some near the ends of the branches. Continue wrapping the lights and working your way down to the bottom, connecting one strand to the next as you go.

4. Stand Back and Check Your Spacing

Take a moment to step back from the tree and look at the spacing of the lights. Adjust them as needed to get an even, random appearance. Make sure there are no holes or dark areas where there aren't enough lights.

Girl hanging lights on Christmas tree

5. Clip the Lights to the Branches

Starting at the top, clip the lights to the branches so the light is pointing up and out. Make sure none of the bulbs are actually touching the branches, since in some lights, this can be a fire hazard.

Different Ways to Light a Christmas Tree

Although the horizontal lighting method is traditional, there are other ways to wrap lights around a tree. You may also need to try a different method if you are using a non-traditional type of lights. Try one of these variations if you're looking for something a little different.

How to Put Lights on a Christmas Tree Vertically

Putting lights on a tree vertically is similar to the horizontal method, but it gives a different look. The lights rest near the ends of the branches, which means your tree may look brighter. Here's how to light your tree vertically:

  1. Start by wrapping the trunk of the tree until you get to the top, just like in the horizontal method.
  2. Then drape the strand of lights vertically down from top to bottom, clipping only one or two bulbs to help hold it in place. You'll need to check and adjust spacing when you're done, so don't clip too many.
  3. At the bottom, make a U-turn with the lights and bring them back up toward the top. Add new strands as needed. When you reach the top, make another U-turn and continue back down. Repeat this process until you've covered the entire tree.
  4. Take a step back and look at the spacing of the lights. Adjust their placement as you need to.
  5. Clip the lights in place so none of the bulbs are touching the branches.

How to Put Icicle Lights or Waterfall Lights on a Tree

Icicle lights are light strands that have vertical drops of fairy lights attached to a horizontal string. Also called waterfall lights, these are a fixture in many outdoor Christmas decorations. While they are not traditionally used to decorate a Christmas tree, they can make a fun alternative to a regular light strand. Here's how to use them:

  1. Don't start by wrapping the trunk from the bottom. Instead, start with the non-plug end of the lights at the top of the tree. Hide the end if possible.
  2. Slowly begin wrapping the lights around the tree, staying at the ends of the branches. Add new light strands as needed.
  3. When you get to the bottom of the tree, step back and check the spacing. Adjust as needed, and clip the lights in place.
  4. Make sure all the drops are on the outside of the light strand, not pinned under the main cord.

Helpful Tips for Lighting a Christmas Tree

There are a few things you can do to make it easier to put lights on your tree. Keep these tips in mind:
  • Have your supplies ready ahead of time. You'll need a ladder to reach the higher parts, a good extension cord if you need to plug into an outlet not near the tree, and plenty of spare bulbs.
  • Buy more lights than you think you'll need. That way, you have an extra strand in case of a malfunction, and you won't have to worry about running out.
  • If you notice you're short on lights and can't easily get more, adjust your spacing before clipping the lights to the tree. The key is making it even so it doesn't look like you ran out.
  • Experiment with mixing colors of lights. If you want to evenly space different colored strands, start them all at the top of the tree and weave them through the branches evenly.
  • Don't forget bubble lights. If you want to add a strand of bubble lights, string it at a diagonal from the top of the tree. This gives an even look and adds a fun element to your display.
Adorned Christmas Tree

Important Safety Tips for Stringing Christmas Tree Lights

Christmas light safety is important during the holidays, and this starts as soon as you put the lights on your tree. The following tips can help you keep your family safe this holiday season:

  • Don't plug different types of lights into one another. If you use different types, string them separately.
  • Use no more than one extension cord. If you need more length, buy a new cord.
  • Don't overload a circuit with too many lights. The number of strands of lights you can use depends on what else is plugged into the circuit and the wattage of each strand. Check these before connecting many strands together.
  • The safest type of lights to use are cool-burning options like LEDs.
  • If you're using lights that get hot, make sure the bulb is not in contact with branches or ornaments.
  • If you have a live tree, keep it watered so the needles don't dry out and become a fire hazard.
  • Turn off your Christmas tree lights when you're not home.

Create a Christmas Masterpiece

Christmas tree lights have been making homes merry and bright for more than a century, and knowing how to put them on your tree is an important part of getting the holiday look you want. Before you start your decorating, take a few minutes to get inspired by other beautifully decorated Christmas trees. Then get out your decorations and get ready to create your Christmas masterpiece.

How to Put Lights on a Christmas Tree Correctly & Safely