MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Why Christmas Lights End Up Tangled

Unless you’re very lucky, or very well-organized, your Christmas lights are likely all tangled up when you get them out of storage. One way or another, you’ll eventually end up on your hands & knees, fighting to untangle that seasonal snarl. And you’re not alone: a few years ago, even the British grocery chain Tesco hired temporary “Christmas light un-tanglers” for the holidays. But, why are Christmas lights so prone to tangling in the first place? And what can be done about it?

There are several issues at play here. First, cords in general are inherently prone to tangling (think headphone cords, telephone cords, etc.). And, according to science, the longer the cord, the higher the probability of knots forming. Plus, the more flexible the cord is, the more likely to tangle it will be, more so than a less flexible cord. While long cords get tangled more easily than short ones, a cord with a larger diameter will be less flexible & thus reduce the risk of knotting. So, in other words, the ratio of length to diameter is what really matters. That’s why a garden hose can end up tangled; even though it’s fairly stiff, it’s also very long compared to its diameter.

But there’s more. If a cord has a metal wire inside of it, as Christmas lights do, then it acquires a kind of natural curve, as the wire, which was previously wrapped around a cylindrical spool, tends to retain that shape. Christmas lights can be even harder to straighten than other wound materials because they often contain a pair of intertwined wires, which give them a stubborn, intrinsic twirl.

Then, there’s the additional problem of the lights. All those little projections of lights get in the way of each other, and make it super difficult to pull one strand through another. That means once you’re tangled, it makes it that much harder to de-tangle.

So, what can we do about this? Well, aside from manufacturers using different, better materials for both the cords & the lights, the only real “solution” is to coil the lights very carefully when putting them away, and to use some twist-ties to help keep them in place. Otherwise, you’ll just have to use the old-school method when faced with a hopelessly tangled mess of cord: find one of the free ends…and just work your way out from there. Eventually, you’ll work it out. You can do it!

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