Christmastime 2021 really is the season to be jolly.
Thankfully, families are able to spend time together over the holidays this year and we'll be drinking fewer eggnog toasts during Zoom calls. As you’re entertaining guests to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or even Festivus — for any Seinfeld fans out there — here's some technology that can help you get the most out of your home decor.
From ambience created with programmable lights to calling Old St. Nick over smart speakers, from a crackling — yet virtual — fireplace on your big-screen TV to belting out holiday tunes over karaoke, the latest gadgets and gear can dress up your home with yuletide spirit and add some extra fun for you and your guests.
Let there be light
If you own an Alexa-, Google- or Siri-enabled smart speaker (as low as $20 this time of year) or smart display (usually starting at $79), you’ve likely used it to control devices around your home, like thermostats. You could do the same with your Christmas lights.
You can say things like, “Alexa, set a timer for the outside lights” or “OK, Google, turn on the Christmas tree lights and set the colors to red and green.” And just like that, you can brighten your space and make sure the merry mood saves a little energy, too, by not forgetting to turn off the display at the end of the evening.
You can do it a number of ways.
- Set up smart lights, like those in the Philips Hue family, around the tree or fireplace mantle; they're ideal with those long and flexible light strips or outdoor smart lights for around your home. Inside the house, for example, the Philips Hue 80-inch gradient light strip ($180) can show multiple colors simultaneously, and it can be expanded up to 33 feet by attaching additional lights. You can also sync your Spotify music, perhaps a Christmas playlist, to Philips Hue bulbs, so your lights react to any music. Govee also makes color gradient light strips that will respond to your music.
- If you want to use a regular A19 smart bulb, like what fits in a standard lamp socket, and a smart speaker in one bundle, Amazon offers a third-generation Echo Dot smart speaker with an Alexa-powered Sengled Bluetooth color bulb for less than $20. You can add more bulbs to your room as you see fit.
- Flat, wall-mounted smart lights like the Nanoleaf-branded collections are another great way to jazz up a room. Modular “RGB” (red-green-blue) light panels, like the triangular or hexagonal starter kits (from $170), affix to your wall, and you can then use your voice or an app to control it all.
- With a pack of sub-$20 smart plugs, which are small thingamajigs inserted into an AC outlet or power strip, you can turn non-smart lights, such as a string of old-fashioned Christmas bulbs, into smart ones. Then, with a smart speaker or app, you can control it all, adding timers and schedules.
One more idea for outside: a $25 Star Shower Laser Magic Laser Light Show Projector to splash a gloriously festive light show against your home, from up to 100 yards away. Suitable for temperatures as low as minus-30 degrees Fahrenheit, this lawn ornament projects thousands of points of moving lights like tiny stars. It needs to be plugged in, so a weatherproof extension cord is ideal. LightShow and LedMall make similar products.
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'Smart' Christmas trees, too
Did you know that Christmas trees have joined the internet of things?
Yep, with Mr. Christmas ($215), a 5-foot artificial Vermont spruce, you can use your voice to select the color, turn the tree lights on and off, or schedule the LEDs to turn on or off at the same time every day. You will need an Amazon smart device, such as an Amazon Echo Dot (sold separately). Then say something like, “Alexa, set Christmas tree to blue,” or “Alexa, set Christmas tree to sparkle.”
Evergreen Classics' 7.5-foot Twinkly Smart Tree ($750) can be controlled through its Twinkly app. When you allow it to connect to your home Wi-Fi network, either Alexa or Google Assistant can can help you call the shots. Other companies, including Home Heritage, Juegoal and National Tree Co., also offer pre-lit Christmas trees, but they aren’t Wi-Fi enabled.
Say it, see it, sing it
Speaking of smart speakers, you can use these small devices and larger smart displays (from $50 leading up to the holidays) to have fun with the kids over the holidays.
For example, on Alexa-powered Amazon speakers and displays, you can:
- Call Santa. Families can say, “Alexa, open Call Santa Claus,” and Alexa will connect them to Santa himself and to many of his friends at the North Pole, too. With this free Alexa add-on, you can sing carols to help Santa’s sleigh fly high, hear elves chatter humorously, listen to stories and use your voice to help Blitzen build a snowman.
- Track Santa. Say, “Alexa, where is Santa?” and your kids can track Mr. Claus before and during Christmas, and also hear his current location. Ask “What is Santa doing?” to hear about other ways he’s preparing ahead of the big day.
Similarly, you can use your voice on a Google Assistant-powered smart speaker or display for some holiday cheer.
- Look up recipes. Find your favorite holiday recipes on YouTube with the Google Nest Hub ($50). Just say, “Hey, Google, show me recipes for eggnog on YouTube,” for example, then follow along as you go.
- Play holiday music. Use your smart speaker to find holiday jingles to get you and your family in the Christmas spirit. Even if you don’t pay for a music subscription service like Spotify, YouTube Music or Amazon Music Unlimited, you can still stream songs. But you’ll have to listen to commercials.
- Shopping help. Use your smart speaker or display and its companion app on a smartphone to manage grocery lists, kids' wish lists and everything in between.
Fireplace videos, karaoke and more
Don’t have a real fireplace? No worries.
Check your cable TV listings for a fireplace channel — it may even be a temporary one for this time of year — to add a little extra charm to the room. It’s simply a video, on a loop, of a crackling fire.
If you have a smart TV, launch YouTube and play a fireplace video there, or launch YouTube on your smartphone, tablet or laptop and choose to “cast” your video to a nearby TV, as long as you’re on the same Wi-Fi network.
Similarly, on Alexa-powered smart displays, like the Echo Show family (from $49), or on a Fire TV stick (from $25), you can say, “Alexa, open Holiday Yule Log,” and the yule log will pop up, including some Christmas music. Streaming services such as Roku and Netflix often have a virtual fireplace option for this time of year, too. Do a search for “fireplace” if you don’t see it listed.
Other gadgety ideas
- To sing Christmas carols or any other kind of music, from golden oldies to today’s top 10 pop tracks, a karaoke machine is a fun consideration. Make sure you go with a model, such as the The Singing Machine STVG785BTW Bluetooth Karaoke System ($197), that lets you add music via MP3 files or karaoke discs. This model includes a 7-inch color monitor and microphone and has a plug for a second microphone for duets. KaraoKing, Moukey and Starument also make karaoke machines at similar prices.
- Safer than real candles is this trio of affordable LED ones. Yiwer Flameless Candles ($18) are made of real wax, but each of the three candles — 4, 5 and 6 inches tall — offer a remote control and timer feature plus a fake but realistic dancing flame. Antizer and Homemory Direct offer similar products.
Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies and Siri for Dummies.