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Dedicated readers of my blog this past year (thanks again to the both of you!) will have noticed a theme – a very suburban dad-ish theme. Let’s continue with that, as the time for our neighbors to judge our Christmas light display is upon us. My neighborhood holds a light contest every year, and I’m proud to sport the third-best display for five years running. Maintaining that consistent level of near dominance takes a lot of expertise, and I’m often called upon to answer these questions:

When is it ok to have my lights on? Anytime between Thanksgiving night and New Year’s Day. This is not a safety tip, but as a society, we must push back against Christmas creep because no one needs lights on from Halloween to Easter.

Do I have to wait until Thanksgiving to put my lights up? No. Actually, if you have some free time and good weather before then, it’s a great time to get all your outdoor lights up. Being able to decorate without wearing heavy winter clothing will allow easier movement and quicker installation. Don’t try to put lights on the roof or take them down when there is snow and ice.

Why do my breakers trip when I turn the lights on? You have too many light strands on the same breaker. You need to split the electric load between outlets on different breakers. My wife knows she can’t use her hairdryer when the lights are on. Another option is to upgrade your lights to LED, as they use a lot less electricity. Although more expensive, LED lights are much easier on your electric bill. Check the clearance rack at the hardware store the week after Christmas and start replacing strands for next season.

Can I use this strand marked “indoor” outside? No. If a decoration is labeled “indoor” it was not designed to be exposed to the elements. Make sure anything you’re putting up outside is labeled “indoor/outdoor” or “for outdoor use.” Using UL or FM approved items (look for the tag) also means they were tested for fire safety.

Why can’t I remember where I put these lights up last year? If you’re planning on putting the same lights up in the same place next year, you need to make a record. Try drawing a rough map of your decorations and clearly tagging each item before you pack them away. However, I’m reasonably certain my gutters change length every year.

How do you get those lights on the roof without falling? Know how to use a ladder safely (, or try an extendable hook. Use the right equipment for the job. There is a variety of gutter hangers and other equipment that can be used to put your decorations up without damaging your home. See what’s available in your local hardware store and get the items that fit your specific needs.

When I take my lights down, there’s always bulbs or strands that don’t work, so what do I do? Always check the lights’ function before you install them. Replace bulbs as needed and inspect the wiring for any damage. Any damaged or exposed wiring should not be used as it poses a fire and electrocution hazard.

Should I keep my lights on all night? This one’s a personal preference. I used to manually unplug the lights and only have them on when we were at home, but I realized that a dark house was a giant (literally) non-flashing sign to the neighborhood that the house is empty. Timers are relatively cheap and can be used to have lights on only when people are around to see them. I run mine from dusk to midnight and pre-dawn.

I’ve followed all your tips, but I’m still only in 3rd place in my neighborhood contest…now what? Well, it may be time to disconnect a few strands of your neighbors’ lights when the voting takes place.

Happy Holidays!

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