Tis The Season… Christmas Lights

By on December 25, 2012

It has long been the custom to put a lamp in the window at Christmas time to guide lost travelers to safety. But when did that grow to putting up lights all over the outside of the house, and most of the lawn as well? A favorite Christmas pass time for many families now is to pile the kids in the car and to go look at the various Christmas lighting displays around town. Some are truly beautiful, some are funny, and some make you wonder whether they saved up for the whole year to be able to put up such a display.

‘Tis the season…

To understand the phenomenon, we need to go back a little ways in history. In the northern hemisphere, it gets cold and dark in the winter time. Now I can hear some of you out there saying, “Gee…ya think?” If you live far enough north of the Equator, you all know what I’m talking about. Back in the days when calendars were few and far between, that whole business of the sun going away and the days getting shorter was pretty scary stuff. Customs grew up around making the house brighter and warmer. The Yule log, for example, was supposed to be a way to lure the sun back into the sky. The candles in the window grew to be a whole tree with tiny candles glued to the branches with drops of wax.

That’s where our Christmas lights story really begins. Now, it doesn’t take too many smarts to know that candles have a live flame, and if you glue the little guys to a dry evergreen, you have a ready made recipe for Big Trouble. Even though people only lighted the tiny candles for a few minutes, and kept buckets of sand and water on hand, Christmas tree fires got to be such a big thing that right about the turn of the century from 1840 or so to 1903, insurance companies wouldn’t pay out on a house fire caused by a Christmas tree!

The first instances of Christmas lights…

Edward Hibbard Johnson, the vice president  of  Edison Electric Light Company, hand wired a set of red, white and blue electric lights and put them on his parlor Christmas tree in 1883. The idea didn’t take off right away, but Johnson’s tree was reviewed by the Detroit Post and Tribune as being the prettiest thing the reporter had ever seen. Still, it took a while for the idea to catch on. For one thing, those little lights were expensive! A single string cost around $12, which is the equivalent of about $300 in modern money.

In 1895, Grover Cleveland decorated the Whitehouse family tree with electric lights. But the whole thing still didn’t take off until Albert Sadacca came up with the idea for a marketable, easy to use string of lights. The Sadacca family, who owned a novelty light company, marketed more affordable strings of lights. With their marketing techniques, the lights began to sell.

Christmas lighting goes mainstream…

The Whitehouse once again weighs in 1923, when Calvin Coolidge had a giant tree placed on the lawn and decorated with 3,000 electric lights. After that, electric lights on Christmas trees really took off. They came in all sorts of shapes and sizes, including beer cans and legs in fish net stockings wearing high heels. In the 1960’s, someone got the idea of hanging them on the porch, then someone else decided to outline their house with them. Soon, it was a kind of contest to see who could put out the most and the prettiest decorations.

Some odd outgrowths of the industry include iron sculpture shapes that can be outlined with lights, and inflatable figures that are lighted on the inside. Some years, there have even been sweaters and skirts that had their own little Christmas lights!

How far Christmas lighting has come eh?

These days, when we often consider the cost of electrical lighting and the environmental consequences of using energy frivolously, I sometimes wonder if all of these strings of electric lights are really a good thing. There are places that have so many of them, I swear the bill would run my household for half a year. But then, on the other hand, perhaps this is our equivalent of the Yule log, that is burning brightly to call the sun back into the sky. Folks sometimes go to a lot of trouble to make a pretty display, and I must admit a well-lit tree gives the heart a lift in these gray days of winter.

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Geoff Jackson published this on behalf of KES Lighting who are a leading stockist of lighting in the UK with thousands of home lighting and modern lighting products available to purchase on their website.

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