Who Turned on the Lights?

The Surprising History of Christmas Lights, Untangled.
Posted: December 05, 2018 by Amanda Martin

It’s December and the signs of the season are upon us with holiday décor and snow covering pretty much everything. One of the most popular things to see around this time is Christmas lights, both inside the house and out. Almost everyone is familiar with the bright glow emanating from many a home strung up in lights. What may be less familiar to folks though is the story behind this tradition. When you stop to think about it, it is an odd thing to do, so why do we put up lights?

It all started with the original form of light; fire. While we look at lights in a purely aesthetic way now, it used to serve the more practical purpose of warmth. The Christmas tree has its own fascinating history that we’re not going to get into, but in the cold winter months, Europeans began to decorate their trees with candles. If you think putting an open flame on a dry tree sounds a little dangerous, you would be right. The whole practice was very unsafe and led to many fires. In fact, in the early 1900’s insurance companies refused to pay for Christmas tree related fires.

Despite the fact that people would pretty much have to stand by the tree prepared with buckets of water or sand in case things took a predictable turn for the worse, this practice would remain popular for quite some time. Necessity however is the mother of invention and a rather famous inventor would help to change things around a big way. In a bid to provide and prove the power of electricity, Thomas Edison decorated his Menlo Park lab with incandescent bulbs. However, it was the Vice President of Edison’s company to first decorate his tree with red, white and blue bulbs and display in his front window.

The public was slow to embrace this new technology, but after then President Grover Cleveland featured the first electrically lit Christmas tree, the trend soon became much more desirable. Price proved to be a prohibiting factor still, as renting a generator and hiring a wireman could cost upwards of $300 (comparable to $2000 today). Lights were therefore reserved for the elites of society while everyone else made do with candles.

Eventually, after a tragic fire caused by tree candles, a NYC teen repurposed novelty lights his family produced, finally bringing accessible lighting to the masses. “Christmas Lights” took off from there. An area in California, now called “Candy Cane Lane”, first started to decorate their outdoor trees as well. This would spread to the houses itself and by the 1980’s neighbors were trying to outdo each other with increasingly ambitious and dazzling displays, as immortalized by Chevy Chase’s character in “Christmas Vacation” covering every inch of his home in lights.

Nowadays creating a holiday light display is much more accessible. Some even create their own lightshows with programmable flickering bulbs and music. It’s strange to look back on all this and remember that it all started with a candle. While today’s lights are much safer, they still inspire the same sense of beauty and awe. The desire to celebrate the season with glowing displays has endured and even grew throughout the years.

Happy Holidays!


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