How can you best photograph Christmas lights? I've had tons of problems, the auto-meters don't work at all, and I'm fairly clueless, other than to get a tripod and keep trying until something sticks... Any tips for both DSLRs and Point and Shoots?
I can see two questions here, how do you set the camera up for Christmas lights and how do you creatively photograph Christmas lights.
To answer the former I'd need more information on the specific problems you're having however shooting manual in low, challenging light conditions will be a process of trial and error I'm afraid.
To answer the second question, BBischof suggestion is a very good one. Here are a couple of examples of the use of tree lights out of focus to produce abstract photos:
In order to get this effect you need to either get very close or use a large aperture lens such as a 50 f/1.8. These were taken close up with a 100 f/2.8 macro lens. It should be possible to get a similar effect with a P&S camera using the camera's macro function.
For outdoor tree lights a technique I've found to be effective is to wait for a heavy frost and then get out early before the sun rises, the frost on the tree or other structure will reflect the lights giving you a very multicoloured subject!
A tripod and long exposure were required for this shot.
There's a post about this at Strobist:
(Basically it's about waiting for the right time to balance christmas lights with outdoor ambient.)
Any time you have a subject that is difficult to meter, it's time to start watching the preview and fiddling with the EV adjustment (exposure compensation). If the area around the lights isn't dark enough and/or the lights are washed out, go for a negative adjustment (less light to the sensor). If the lights are too dim and/or the area around the lights too dark go for a positive adjustment (more light to the sensor).
Once you have some experience, you will better know where to start on the adjustments.
Note that changing the exposure compensation will change the shutter speed and aperture the camera is using (assuming you are on program mode). So you may need to recheck your shutter speed and aperture and make an adjustment with the program shift if you wanted a specific aperture or shutter speed.