Outdoor Holiday Decorating Ideas

white lights along the eaves of three front gables of a white house -- a horizontal row of white lights at the ground level complements the arrangement
Robert Barnes/Getty Images

Christmas lights during the holidays are a wonderful excuse to showcase the architectural features of your home. Strings of lights and other outdoor holiday decorations let you highlight the details you love most. With imagination, you can also transform your house into something exciting and new. The trick? Choose a focal point, limit your colors, and go easy on lights that flicker and blink.

Blinking lights and holiday glitter are like shouting. Holidays can bring out the best and worst in people, so here are some suggestions for spotlighting the better angels of our nature, highlighting humankind's very best — the natural beauty of residential architecture.

  • 01 of 10

    Natural Beauty

    modest carpenter gothic home, with wide eaves on side gables and front gable, two lighted wreathes on the facade, garlands around the portico columns

    Stocktrek/Getty Images 

    Bah humbug to flashing lights and holiday glitz. Natural beauty doesn't need such shouting — architectural detail can speak for itself.

    So, how can you showcase the architecture of your house? Outline simplicity with simple lights tucked under an overhanging eave, allowing the architectural detail to glow itself. Simple wreaths, lighted and symmetrical, complement the order and symmetry of this home's facade — and probably say something about the people who live inside. The mixed geometry of circles on flat surfaces and garland swirls on front porch columns make these simple decorations interesting.

  • 02 of 10

    Directing Attention

    red lights along the lines of the roof and front gable dormer
    Denise Taylor/Getty Images

    It's easy to attach strings of lights to straight edges, so outlining the roof is a typical application of exterior lights. What else could you do to make your display a little less geometric? Do you want people to be looking at your entire roof or do you want them to focus on the dormer?

    Where you put the lights is where people will look.

  • 03 of 10

    Blue Christmas

    blue lights along the front gable and horizontally above the front porch create a pediment on a modest home
    Denise Taylor/Getty Images

    When did Fifty Shades of Blue represent the colors of Christmas? Maybe it was when Elvis Presley's Blue Christmas became one of the top 10 sad Christmas songs. Or maybe it became popular from energy conscientiousness — for many people, blue screams LED energy efficiency. Even if the lights are energy hogs, blue is cool.

    Realize these things, though, before you take this cool plunge:

    1. Once you have a string of blues, bulb replacement really does have to be blue, too. No easy transition.
    2. If you like the look, you can try to temper it with colorful lawn ornaments.
    3. Outlining your home in shades of blue may make your house look like an x-ray. Some people like the scientific radiation look. Others may stay away — which could be the homeowner's real intent in using blue.
  • 04 of 10

    Spotlights and Floodlights

    symmetrical arrangement of holiday lights outlining the front gables
    Patricia Marroquin/Getty Images

    Accentuate your home's details with strategically placed outdoor spotlights and floodlights. Realizing that a total view from side to side is 180 degrees, a spotlight will illuminate about 45 degrees in a narrower band than a floodlight's 120 degrees. Both kinds of lights are sold at big-box stores like The Home Depot, but if you're thinking of using them for the holidays, make sure you can turn off the motion detector that is often attached.

    Shine a light onto what you love best about your house. You may have a rustically carved front door, a massive brick chimney, or fancy columns or pillars that display a regal beauty. Let it shine. Take some tips from the pros who lit the Washington Monument: 1) focus on the corners and 2) light from the top down. Exterior lighting can be permanent or temporarily placed using outdoor extension cords.

    Strategically placed floodlights allow the homeowner more flexibility than strings of lights. The floodlights can showcase different areas of your property and colors can be changed easily. In fact, they are so flexible and easily installed that a homeowner could do too much. How do you know when you've gone overboard with the lighting? Just remember — the Washington Monument isn't outlined in blinking lights.

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  • 05 of 10

    Rooftop Message Shouting

    white holiday lights on a two-story home, in the front yard, vertically on a tree, on a rooftop star -- supplementing a red Merry Christmas sign over the garage
    Robert Barnes/Getty Images

    Beautiful white lights illuminate every detail of this suburban home. The red "Merry Christmas" atop the garage is nicely balanced with the colorful strands of tree lights. But here's a question — are the words necessary? Don't the lights themselves speak volumes without the writing on the roof?

  • 06 of 10

    Electric Candlelight

    small one-story cabin outlined in colored lights with a fir tree in colored lights in the foreground
    Patrick Endres/Getty Images

    The history of electric Christmas tree lights is fascinating. Before the 19th century invention of the electric light, people used candles to illuminate and decorate their houses — and what a fire hazard that would be!

    But what if you displayed electric lights as if they were candles? Where would they go? How many? If you live in an older home, think about how past residents may have decorated it for the holidays. This little cabin would have been either charming or in a ball of flames!

  • 07 of 10

    Illuminated Landscape Architecture

    holiday lighted trees, including green palms, in the front of a Florida house

    Diane Macdonald/Getty Images 

    Most holiday decorations are in the front of a house — the facade, the front yard, the entrance. Christmas lights become a proclamation to the people who pass by. Remember that you can broadcast a hearty "Merry Christmas" or a "Look at Me" message.

    Sometimes it's not even your house that you want to accentuate. The landscaping — or landscape architecture — is also part of your property. Reflecting pools and natural ponds can be used reflectively. Lighting palm trees is just fun.

  • 08 of 10

    Maintaining Symmetry and Proportion

    white lights only on the first story of an L-shaped home

    Douglas Keister/Getty Images 

    Putting up Christmas lights makes the installer a do-it-yourself (DIY) lighting designer. If you're afraid to climb up to the second floor to put up the lights, a different approach might be better than a total focus on the first story. Symmetry and proportion are Classical aspects of design, dating back to ancient Rome. For people living in the Western world, this type of design is felt to be beautiful. Lopsided lighting breaks the beauty.

    When everything is working, your holiday lights should display a certain symmetry of your home. Lighting can be tricky. If you're afraid of heights, try floodlights that can illuminate the high places you can't reach. Take the time to think of solutions outside the box.

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  • 09 of 10

    Magic Storybook

    small home outlined in white lights, with adjoining trees outlined in blue lights
    Robert Barnes/Getty Images

    How you assemble your lighting display gives a message to the viewer. What is it that you want to say? Come on in? We love lights?  Or maybe, simply, Happy Holidays!

  • 10 of 10

    Find Your Own Decorations

    Designer Architect Charles Eames c. 1946

    Library of Congress (cropped)

    American designers Charles and Ray Eames expressed a playful holiday spirit — this 1946 photo shows Charles Eames with a fanciful Christmas tree he made from scrap molded plywood chair legs. Together, the Eames husband-and-wife team created some of the most iconic American furniture using a new method of bending and molding wood and shaping plastic — a process that is still used today. And what did they do with leftover and rejected chair legs? Imagination prevailed. Who knew that old chair legs make wonderful candles?

     If you lack the confidence of thinking outside the box, then ask your kids or the neighborhood geek down the street. Anyone can come up with bizarre and entertaining ornaments from odds and ends found around your own workbench or even from the local dumpster. Architects might call these objects architectural salvage. You might call them found ornaments.

    Holiday Project

    Try this: Give each of your kids $5 or $10 and take them to the local hardware store or big-box chain store (e.g., Lowe's, The Home Depot, B & Q). Tell them they can spend the money any way they want for building supplies that they will assemble into a decoration, tree, wreath, or some other ornamentation for the holidays. You'll find that some of the most beautiful decorations are simple, economical, and eco-friendly. And where else can you get a handmade wreath for ten bucks? Just remember to keep an eye on the matches.


    • Charles with a Christmas Tree. Original photograph http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/eames/images/uc9662.jpg (cropped), circa 1946 from the exhibition "The Work of Charles & Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention (Furniture)," Library of Congress in partnership with the Vitra Design Museum. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/eames/furniture.html.