The holidays are full of traditions—some beloved, some less so. Wrestling with Christmas lights falls under the latter category for many people, whether that means untangling them or crawling behind a Christmas tree to plug them in.

What if you could simply tell Alexa to turn your Christmas lights on or off? Or tell the tree to change the lights to a different color and switch from a steady glow to twinkling?

Break out the eggnog, because now you can.

Established in 1933, Mr. Christmas is a renowned maker of holiday decor, and some of its more recent inventions include pre-lit artificial trees that are compatible with Alexa. The trees are possible in part because of Amazon’s Alexa Connect Kit (ACK), a service for device manufacturers that makes it easy to integrate Alexa capabilities into their products.

For Mr. Christmas, ACK helped update a centuries-old holiday classic to represent the next chapter of possibilities for voice technology and smart home devices. “There are so many pain points around decorating and lighting at Christmas,” said Mr. Christmas President Leslie Hermanson. “Everyone wants something that’s easy to use.”

A Christmas miracle, courtesy of Alexa Connect Kit

Mr. Christmas spent years trying to develop a “smart” tree as smart home technology (and smartphone apps) boomed in popularity. With no experts in electronic engineering on staff, the company reached out to experienced integrators overseas to help jump-start its own Mr. Christmas mobile app.

The company was told it would need to invest several years and a lot of money in developing a new smart platform—and that the work wouldn’t stop there. Cloud services and mobile apps would have to be put in place and perpetually updated to fix bugs and keep up with changes in consumer tech.

Not one to shy away from a challenge, Mr. Christmas tried to do the work in-house. Hermanson said the company’s first homegrown app “was not particularly well-received,” and it was quickly shelved.

Soon after, Amazon approached the company with an idea. Amazon knew that during the holidays, some of the most common Alexa commands included phrases like “turn on my Christmas tree lights” and “turn off my Christmas tree lights.” Customers were using these commands to control smart plugs they had connected to an Alexa device. Amazon theorized that controlling an artificial tree using voice could offer a delightful customer experience.

Alexa Connect Kit simplifies voice integration

Until recently, there were limits to the range of products that could integrate with smart technologies. Incorporating voice control required device makers to develop a new Wi-Fi component with more processing power, additional firmware, and connectivity software.

Alexa Connect Kit simplifies the process for manufacturers by providing a compact module that creates a gateway for cloud connectivity and voice control. The required back-end services are included, which eliminates the need for device makers to write special networking or security firmware, set and manage cloud services, or develop an Alexa skill or app. The Alexa service then allows customers to operate the device by relaying voice commands to an Echo device or by using the Alexa app.

With Alexa Connect Kit, a low up-front fee covers cloud integrations for the product’s lifetime. It’s a streamlined and affordable solution that makes smart and intuitive functionality possible across a wider range of devices and product categories.

Setup can be as simple as plugging it in for customers who already use an Alexa device and purchase a 9-foot, 7-foot, or 5-foot Mr. Christmas pre-lit artificial tree on Amazon, which is a “Certified for Humans” product for its ease of use. The tree can quickly be linked to a customer’s existing Alexa account.

A sleigh ride to the top of the sales charts

Mr. Christmas signed on to Amazon’s vision. Development kicked off in June 2019, and the first Mr. Christmas product with Alexa Connect Kit was selling that September. The Alexa-enabled Mr. Christmas RGB LED Tree lets customers control the lights with their voice—and much more. Users can fully sync the tree’s 400 LEDs to their holiday decor and mood, selecting from more than 40 lighting options, including a sparkling snowflake function or a soothing firefly effect.

“It sold out immediately,” Hermanson said.

Hermanson is still excited about how easy it was to develop the tree once Mr. Christmas connected with Amazon. She said Amazon “held our hands through the entire process.” In fact, Amazon collaborated directly with Mr. Christmas’s manufacturing partner to integrate the Alexa Connect Kit chip with existing circuit boards.

“It was pretty seamless,” she said. “After just six weeks of programming and testing, we were ready to go into production.”

Alexa Connect Kit helps companies add voice experiences to a range of products—like a Sharp Microwave—without breaking the bank.

Paul Hegdahl, senior business development manager for Alexa Connect Kit, says that such results are common. Alexa Connect Kit is specifically designed to help manufacturers quickly get Alexa-enabled products to market without having to worry about managing cloud services, writing an Alexa skill, or developing complex networking and software firmware.

Alexa Connect Kit is also cost-effective. For Mr. Christmas, the total cost of its project added only “a few percentage points” to the price of the tree, which the company recouped by charging a slightly higher retail price for its Alexa-compatible trees.

Amazon’s marketing support for these devices is an extra stocking stuffer. “Amazon’s investing to make device launches successful,” Hegdahl said. “We want companies to know that our interests are aligned with theirs.”

Sure enough, the original Mr. Christmas Smart Tree was such a success that the company quickly embarked on follow-up products for 2021, including two sets of Alexa-enabled lights that can be strung on a live tree—or used year-round for voice-activated accent lighting. Just tell Alexa to switch the lights to red for Valentine’s Day or green for St. Patrick’s Day. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.