All that is merry and bright: A history of Christmas lights

Many a light hanger has pulled their hair out over the years in frustration while at the task. Why do we do this anyway? Where did it start?

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Christmas lights | Image James Picht - All Rights Reserved

FORT WORTH, Texas December 12, 2015 — It’s Christmastime! People everywhere are decorating for the holidays. Of all the Yuletide trimmings, the installation of Christmas lights probably ranks as one of the most tedious.

Many a light hanger has pulled their hair out over the years in frustration while at the task. Why do we do this anyway? Where did it start?

The Yule Log says that the tradition of lighting the darkness goes back to the Yule, a midwinter festival celebrated by Norsemen. The festival boasted nights of feasting, drinking Yule, the Norse god Odin’s sacrificial beer and watching the fire leap around the Yule log burning in the home hearth.


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The lighting of the Yule log spread throughout Europe. Many believed the log’s flame summoned the sun’s return and drove away evil spirits. Over time Christianity adopted this tradition and the light from the Yule log came to represent Jesus as Light in the darkness.

Live Science says that under the right conditions the human eye can see a candle flame from 30 miles away. In the days before electricity lit up dark skies, people set candles in their windows, especially on long winter nights to welcome weary travelers. That flicker of light was a beacon of hope. For wanderers of those desolate and pitch-dark roads of yesteryear, that tiny glow in the darkness meant sanctuary was just ahead.
Because of that, Christians came to see it as a symbol to welcome Mary and Joseph after their ninety mile long trek to Bethlehem and representative of Jesus being the Light in the darkness as well as the Yule log.
But how did lights get on trees?

Thousands of years ago ancient Druids and Romans decorated trees. In time Christians embraced the practice as well. Legend has it that Martin Luther was the first to put lights on a Christmas tree. Walking home one night Luther was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling through the evergreens he passed. To share this with his family he erected a tree in his home and wired the branches with lit candles.

Soon a star was affixed to the top to represent the star in the east that shone where the baby Jesus lay in a manger. The lights and ornaments came to represent the stars and planets in the sky; many Christians place a manger at the base of the Christmas tree.

Until the mid-19th century most Americans and Brits didn’t have decorated trees in their homes because of its pagan origins. They did begin to grow in popularity however, starting in 1848 in Great Britain. The London News ran an illustration of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children gathered around their candlelit tree in Buckingham Palace.

Now in vogue, Christmas trees became part of the British Christmas tradition. Soon the fashionable east coast people of the United States adopted the practice too. From there it spread west.

 


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Lighted Christmas trees enchanted Americans even though that meant having a bucket of water or sand nearby in case of fire. And there were lots of fires.

The candles’ visual effect on a Christmas tree was beautiful; nevertheless safety was still a major issue. The combination of candle light and a dry tree often ended in tragedy. Insurance companies even stopped paying for fires caused by Christmas trees.

In 1880 Thomas Edison was the first to connect lights with wire but was not the first to wrap them on a Christmas tree. He strung them around his laboratory as an advertisement in an effort to gain a contract to provide electricity to Manhattan. His partner Edward Johnson was the first to decorate his Christmas tree with electric lights in 1882. He is the “Father of the Electric Christmas Tree.”

The practice didn’t catch on quickly though; it was expensive and Americans were still wary of electricity. That changed in 1895 when President Grover Cleveland featured the first White House Christmas tree lighted by current. Illuminated by more than 100 multi-colored bulbs, the president’s tree started a craze across the nation.

Unfortunately they required the rental of a generator and hiring a “wireman” to operate them. The cost at the time was $300, which is about $2000 in today’s currency. Because of this, lighted Christmas trees were most often seen in town squares and community functions or homes in high society.

Then in 1917, moved by a tragic fire caused by Christmas tree candles, teen-ager Albert Sadacca took the novelty lights produced by his family and promoted them for use on Christmas trees. They became the first affordable Christmas lights sold for widespread use in the home.

Safety issues now a thing of the past, the lights flew off the shelves. Sadacca then formed NOMA (National Outfit Manufacturer’s Association) which later became the largest holiday light manufacturer in the world.


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By the 1920s lights developed for outdoor use hit the market. With this began the outdoor light show.

Fredrick Nash of Altadena, California organized the first outdoor Christmas light display on Santa Rosa Avenue. The tradition continues to this day.

Even president Calvin Coolidge joined in the fun by lighting the very first National Christmas Tree on the White House lawn on Christmas Eve, 1923.

After the Second World War Americans moved to the suburbs. The booming economy provided them with more money to spend. We bought more lights and other Christmas trimmings like never before.

To this day Christmas lights continue to evolve in technology and in use. For Halloween purple and orange lights now adorn homes. There are pink and red ones for Valentine’s Day, pastel lights for Easter and patriotic lights for Independence Day.

Whatever the use, the holiday lights first used as a symbol of Christmas will always be a beacon in the night, physically, as well as spiritually. Some still welcome weary travelers and the rest are for our pure enjoyment.
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Claire Hickey
Claire has held a Texas Cosmetology License, Certification in Surgical Technology and has decorated cakes professionally. She believes that life is a banquet to be experienced and wants to learn and do as much as possible while she’s here. This Stay @ Home Mom has always loved to write and thanks to the Communities Digital News has got her chance. Her curiosity and writing lead her to create her column based on “garbage in garbage out” theory to provide interesting and thought provoking pieces that enrich her readers. A proud member of the Greater Fort Worth Writer’s Group she is currently working on her first novel.