History of Christmas Lights

The very idea of “light” is tied to Christmas in many ancient ways.

As with many elements of Christmas, it is a mixture of reverent worship, pagan tradition and spiritual symbolism that give light its lasting impact on Christmas.

In the Old Testament, the psalmist David wrote “The Lord is my light and my salvation”, a theme built upon the statement in Genesis when God said, “Let there be light, and there was light”.

Light has long been associated with God, good luck, warmth, growth, knowledge and life. Isaiah admonished all to “walk in the light of the Lord” and Jesus called himself the “Light of the World”.

Light, in the form a new star, was the sign given to the Magi in their quest to find the Christ Child.

The most important date in the festive season for Pagans is the winter solstice which always takes place around December 21, the shortest or darkest day of the year. Called Yule, it is one of the traditional Celtic fire festivals and marks the return of the light after the longest night of the year. Yule is a tradition believed to have been started in Germany wherein people will celebrate the winter solstice and the short dark days of winter by burning the “Yule Log.” The burning of the Yule Log offered welcome light during the dark winter days and was also believed to summons the return of the sun and ward of evil spirits.

During the Middle Ages, around the Eleventh Century, religious theater was born. One of the most popular plays — the German mystery play — concerned Adam and Eve and their fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, represented by a fir tree hung with apples. This tree was symbolic of both the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which stood in the center of Paradise. The play ended with the prophecy of a coming Savior, whose salvation was often symbolized with candle light.

Light has been a part of many small Christmas traditions in many cultures.

In Scotland candles were placed in every window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve and as a signal to the village priest that Christmas was observed in a home as a religious observance. Shopkeepers gave their customers Yule Candles as a symbol of goodwill wishing them a ‘Fire to warm you by, and a light to guide you’.

Light as a theme was clearly on the mind of Martin Luther in cutting down the first Christmas tree, where legend says he was inspired by the clear view of the stars, a symbolic reference to Christ as the light of the world. He added candles to the tree to represent the stars he saw that night, giving birth to a German tradition carried forward hundreds of years later by Hessian soldiers sent to fight General George Washington and the Continental Army. They lost the Battle of Trenton, thanks in no small part to their celebration of Christmas with a lighted tree.

Queen Victoria is credited for adopting the German tradition of Christmas trees and some 50 years before Edison and electricity she lit her Christmas tree in the German fashion with candles. In her journal for Christmas Eve 1832, the delighted 13-year-old princess wrote, “After dinner.. we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room. There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees”.

As the American landscaped evolved with electrical power in the late 19th century so too did the availability and use of Christmas lights.

In those early days of electric Christmas illumination, however, it was not cheap and it wasn’t easy to achieve the desired effect – even for a small Christmas tree. In fact, at first only the very well-heeled could afford to do it.

Imagine the reaction at seeing a Christmas tree with electric lights for the first time. Imagine trying to describe electric light to an audience who may have never seen it. Such was the task one reporter had. Here is a first hand account from a journalist from New York City who wrote a story that many local papers in New York failed to run, thinking it was just another publicity stunt from the brilliant inventor Thomas Edison.

This reporter accepted an invitation given to him by the Vice President of Edison Electric, Edward H. Johnson, to visit his home during the Christmas season. The story was picked up, thankfully for us today, by a newspaper in Detroit. This is what he wrote of seeing Christmas lights for the first time:

Last evening I walked over beyond Fifth Avenue and called at the residence of Edward H. Johnson, vice-president of Edison’s electric company. There, at the rear of the beautiful parlors, was a large Christmas tree presenting a most picturesque and uncanny aspect. It was brilliantly lighted with many colored globes about as large as an English walnut and was turning some six times a minute on a little pine box. There were eighty lights in all encased in these dainty glass eggs, and about equally divided between white, red and blue. As the tree turned, the colors alternated, all the lamps going out and being relit at every revolution. The result was a continuous twinkling of dancing colors, red, white, blue, white, red, blue—all evening.

I need not tell you that the scintillating evergreen was a pretty sight—one can hardly imagine anything prettier. The ceiling was crossed obliquely with two wires on which hung 28 more of the tiny lights; and all the lights and the fantastic tree itself with its starry fruit were kept going by the slight electric current brought from the main office on a filmy wire. The tree was kept revolving by a little hidden crank below the floor which was turned by electricity. It was a superb exhibition.”

In 1895, President Grover Cleveland proudly sponsored the first electrically lit Christmas tree in the White House. It was a huge specimen, featuring more than a hundred multicolored lights.

Finally, the general public was taking notice, and it was not long afterward that members of “high society” were hosting Christmas Tree parties.

They were grand events indeed, as a typical lighted tree of the early 1900s cost upwards of $300 (more than $2000 today), including the generator and wireman’s services.

Still out of range for the average American family, smaller and less expensive battery-operated lighting strings were decorating the trees of those adventurous enough to do the wiring. In fact, an article in Popular Electricity Magazine had a piece for children, explaining how to light the family tree with battery-powered electric lights.

The back pages had instructions on ordering the necessary wire, sockets and light bulbs. General Electric even offered miniature light bulbs for rent in some cities, as an alternative to an outright purchase of the expensive lamps.

But electric tree lighting was not to be truly practical until the General Electric Company came to the rescue in 1903.

That year, GE offered a pre-assembled lighting outfit for the first time. Still quite expensive at $12.00 (the total weekly wage for an average worker and the equivalent of about $80.00 today), many department stores in the larger, electrified cities would rent outfits for the season for $1.50.

Called a “festoon”, the outfit consisted of eight green pre-wired porcelain sockets, eight Edison miniature base colored glass lamps, and a handy screw-in plug for easy attachment to a nearby wall or ceiling light socket.

It is interesting to note that while GE sold the first pre-wired string of lights to the American public, it did not manufacture the string. That honor goes to the American Eveready Company, You will recognize the Eveready name as being associated with batteries today. Eveready did not sell festoons under their own name until a few years later.

The American Eveready Company tried to patent their lighting strings, but were unable to, as when the company’s patent applications were presented to the United States Patent and Trademark Office for consideration, the courts decided that the socket sets were “based on common electrical knowledge” and not actually a new invention.

It was not long after the decision was handed down that several companies began offering lighting sets of their own, and the American electric Christmas lighting industry was born.

While Thomas Edison and Edward H. Johnson may have been the first to create electric strands of light in 1880/1882, it was Albert Sadacca who saw a future in selling electric Christmas lights.

The Sadacca family owned a novelty lighting company and in 1917 Albert, a teenager at the time, suggested that its store offer brightly colored strands of Christmas lights to the public. By the 1920’s Albert and his brothers organized the National Outfit Manufacturers Association (NOMA), a trade association. NOMA soon became NOMA Electric Co., with its members cornering the Christmas light market until the 1960’s.

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