Merry and bright; a history of Christmas lights
FORT WORTH, Texas: Of all the Yuletide trimmings, hanging Christmas lights is probably the most modern tradition. 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 Winter darkness goes back to the Yule, a midwinter festival celebrated by the ancient Norse. The festival boasted of nights of feasting, drinking Yule(Wassail) – the Norse god Odin’s sacrificial beer, and watching the fire leap around the Yule log burning in the home hearth.
The ancient Viking Yule log led to the Christmas lights we use today
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 the 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 welcoming Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem after their ninety-mile-long trek from Nazareth.
How did Christmas 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 Christian to put lights on a 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.
At some point, someone added a star to the top to represent the star in the east that guided the Wise Men to the manger where Jesus lay. Lights and ornaments came to represent the stars and planets in the sky that look down on the Nativity placed under the tree.
19th Century Christmas lights
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 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.
Lighted Christmas trees enchanted Americans even though that meant having a bucket of water or sand nearby in case of fire. And unfortunately there were lots of fires.
Flaming Christmas Trees
The candles’ visual effect on a Christmas tree was striking; nevertheless, safety was still a major issue. The combination of candlelight and a dry tree often ended in tragedy. So much so that insurance companies stopped honoring claims for Christmas tree fires.
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 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. Johnson is the “Father of the Electric Christmas Tree.”
The First Electric White House Christmas Tree
The practice didn’t catch on quickly though; it was expensive and Americans were still wary of electricity. That changed in 1895 however, when President Grover Cleveland featured the first White House Christmas tree lighted by current. Iluminated 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. By the 1920s lights developed for outdoor use hit the market. With this began the outdoor light show.
Electric Christmas lighting takes off like a Reindeer
Fredrick Nash of Altadena, California organized the first outdoor Christmas. The traditional light display on Santa Rosa Avenue 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 many 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 Christ 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.
Read more of Claire’s work at Feed the Mind, Nourish the Soul in the Communities Digital News Join her on Twitter and Facebook