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How to Go Griswold Like a Pro

Local landscaper Jeremy Sanders gives us all the tips you'll need to have the best holiday light display on the block. 

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When it comes to holiday decorating season, interiors provide all the fun. The whole family goes hunting for a tree (and grabs cups of hot cocoa on the drive home), and the smell of freshly baked cookies fills the house while tunes like “Frosty the Snowman” play in the background and the kids take turns hanging ornaments. Exterior bedazzling, on the other hand—with its hours of detangling strings of lights and teetering on ladders in the cold—is a decidedly lonelier, less glamorous endeavor that can often earn a resounding “bah humbug.”

As Clark Griswold—the main character from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)—will tell you, though, the payoff of having a house lit so brightly it looks like it’s on fire is worth the trouble—so long as it doesn’t actually, you know, burn anything down. We talked with Centennial-based Designscapes Colorado‘s outdoor lighting manager, Jeremy Sanders, to get all the professionals’ tips and tricks for creating a safe and chic display.

Tip #1: Don’t skimp on equipment. When it comes to the quality and quantity of your lights, less is not more. Sanders encourages at-home decorators to buy the highest quality lights that they can afford in order to make a sound investment. Cheap lights may seem like a good idea when you’re eyeing your Christmas gift budget, but when they stop working after a single season’s use, the money you saved can come back to haunt you.

Tip #2: Embrace color. “Homeowners want to compete against each other and be unique and different,” Sanders says—particularly in neighborhoods where everyone can afford to play the keeping up with the Joneses game. One of the best ways to stand out? Color. With the popularity of traditional white lights being nearly universal, Sanders explains, you can make a big impact with your house by branching out and being brave enough to go for a different hue.

Tip #3: Put down those icicle lights. These long strands of bulbs can create a great ethereal effect when done correctly, but Sanders cautions that they’re nearly impossible to master. Since the lights hang down off the main line, icicles tangle easily in storage, and can start to lose their shape and look raggedy after even one season. Plus icicles are designed to tumble delicately over the edge of your roof, so they can (and will) blow back up onto the roof with even the slightest wintry gust—leading to even more time up on that ladder.

Tip #4: Opt for LEDs. LED lights are safer and more durable than their traditional incandescent cousins, and they’re more energy efficient, too. With LEDs accounting for over 90 percent of Designscapes’ light work, they’re also popular. What could be more Coloradan than going green and following the latest trends?

Tip #5: Buy more than you think you’ll need. If you drive down your street this month, you’ll probably find one of Sanders’ biggest decorating pet peeves: trees transformed into giant, shapeless spirals. That’s what happens, he says, when you under-buy. If you want to decorate a tree so it still resembles wildlife when the sun goes down, you’ll need more than a string or two of lights to curl around the trunk and a couple of low-hanging branches. “You can pick up 15 or 20 strands at the store and only have enough for one tree in your yard,” Sanders says. Don’t try to decorate everything unless you’ve bought the lights to really do it justice.

Tip #6: If all else fails, go pro. Professional decorating services provide safe, insured crews to do your ladder work; some of the highest quality products on the market (no premade strands and nothing from a box, in Designscapes’ case); and a custom lighting design that’s completely unique to your house and personality. The pros can create modest displays, but they’re especially great if you want an over-the-top design. (Designscapes’ biggest project this year is a seven-acre property that required a month’s worth of labor and cost a whopping $50,000.) If you’re really serious about outdoing your neighbors this holiday season, your best bet may just be to sit back, pop in a Mannheim Steamroller CD, and leave the work to Santa’s most ladder-savvy helpers.

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