By Brad Knight
My first experience in hanging Christmas lights taught me a lot of lessons. Newly married and mostly broke, we did not even have the money to get a tree. So I decided to surprise my bride by outlining our basement apartment window with a string of Christmas lights. I bought them at a local drug store for 88 cents.
It was a near disaster. The lights were intended for indoor use only and I put them on the outside of the window. Everything was fine until a stormy gust of wind blew the connected extension cord (which was also rated for indoor use only) into a small puddle of water in the dirt. We were watching some holiday television when we suddenly saw a little flash outside our window and lost power to the whole apartment. That was the end of the Christmas lights.
I learned over the years to respect labels and to pay attention to electrical sources. As your typical lazy male I had to fight the urge to “just get the job done”. Hanging Christmas lights is work. And that is the first thing you have to know.
Now that I’ve done it for almost 20 years these are the things I would tell the first time light hanger:
1.You’re not Clark Griswold and you never will be. It is the inherent ability of every male to think they can have the most brilliant Christmas light display the first time they hang lights. You won’t. We all start out with a vision of splendor. But three things usually get in the way of fulfilling such a vision: time, money and spouse (and the same thing that makes us think we can rebuild a ’65 Mustang – ego). Before you go nuts you’d better get a handle on all this. Chances are you won’t have the time to create the complete masterpiece you envision, the money it takes will be more than you have and convincing your significant other that lights are more important than shoes for the kids won’t be an easy sale. Be conservative your first time out. Learn as you go.
2. Before you get the ladder out, do some research. There are so many options out there. And there are lots of rules, too. Locate your power sources and determine how much of a strain hanging Christmas lights will put on your home electrical. I had a friend who would lose all power to his house if he turned on his Christmas display and the dishwasher at the same time. That lead to daily arguments about whether to turn on the lights or just skip dinner.
3. Be a neighbor. Talk with neighbors who already have good Christmas light displays. Offer yourself as a helper as they build their display so you can ask them about costs, city ordinances (some places have them), sources and how they keep their marriage together, etc. Doing it with someone who has built the expertise, has the tools and likes free labor will save you so much in money and aggravation down the road.
4. Put a figure on paper and stick to it. Before you dream of any kind of display know exactly how much you can and cannot spend. Those with massive prolific displays likely didn’t get there over night and you won’t either. Lights, decorations and all the tools and equipment that go into building a great display cost a lot of money. Anyone who tells you different is getting coal for Christmas from Santa. In this hobby there is nothing that is cheap, free or inexpensive. If you build and invest year to year your display will get better and better.
5. Shop. Most places have Christmas lights out to buy right after Labor Day. Some have them year round. Go and look at it all and take notes. Consider the value of commercial grade lights and how long they might last as opposed to the cheap stuff found in discount stores.
6. Put your plan on paper before you do anything. That way you can track where you are at and the paramedics will know what your intent was when they find the body.
7. Have children. Seriously. You will need several pairs of hands, someone with eye-hand coordination and a cheering squad to help you out. Never work alone.
8. Test everything before you hang it. Nobody likes to hear a grown man swear in the dark.
9. Never hang lights that are plugged in. Especially if you are using a metal ladder. You know this already and will ignore it but decency compels me to remind you that safety is first.
10. Invest in video and camera equipment. Take pictures as you go and make a record of your efforts. They will serve as a good reminder before next summer when your visions of grandeur totally diminish your common sense.
The Christmas light hobby is addictive. It was never my intention to string 75,000 lights on my home, synchronize them to music and share Christmas with thousands of my closest friends while alienating my wife and neighbors for a month every year. But there are so many neat things on the market and so many ideas that hit you as you do this year to year. And after a while, you find you have so much invested that you just have to do it again each season.
So beware. You will get sucked in. Christmas lights add brilliance to the season no matter where you live. If you get snow, they look awesome. If you get only fog, they look awesome. If you get rain, they look awesome. And if it ever gets dark where you live, they look awesome.
But as with anything awesome there are sacrifices to make. Don’t let the fact I spend five months out of my year stringing lights, keeping lights working, taking them down and storing them and then the other seven months planning or shopping for it all. There are worse habits to have.