A Brief History of Christmas Lights

On his way back to home from a sermon on one winter evening, the 16th century German professor of theology and the seminal figure in protestant reformer, Martin Luther was awed by the elegance of stars shining amidst the evergreen trees. Fascinated by the spectacle he erected a tree in his own house and adorned it with lighted candles. It is believed that Martin Luther was the first person who added candles to an evergreen. However, the ritual of using the evergreens during winter festivals predates Christianity. Pagans used evergreen fir branches to illustrate life in the dead of winter as it would make them think of the spring to come.

However, the tradition of illuminating the Christmas tree with candles approximately began in late 17th century by Germans. Even though Martin Luther had lit the first tree a century earlier, the first documented reference of lighting the Christmas tree dated in 17th century.

In 18th century, the upper class homes in German would decorate their trees with candles which at that time was a comparatively expensive light source. They would attach the candles by pins or melted and glued wax. It was not until the very late 19th century when the use of candleholder began to take place. Meanwhile, around the early 19th century Britain was introduced to Tannenbaum ( The German term for fir tree). In the journal for Christmas Eve 1832, Princess Victoria (Queen Victoria) 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.” Harvard University professor, Charles Follen is believed to be the first American to illuminate a Christmas tree in the same year. And by 1851, fresh-cut trees from Catskill Mountain were being sold at Washington Square Park as well. President Franklin Pierce put the first tree up at White House during 1850. However, some people claim the first tree at White House was up during President Benjamin Harrison’s administration.

The invention of incandescent light bulb in late 19th century turned out to be revolutionary. Even though the candle was the cardinal element to turn a evergreen tree into a Christmas tree, the flame was downright venturesome. And to attach them with branches was troubling in the first place even after the invention of candleholder. On December 22, 1882 Edward H. Johnson, an associate of inventor Thomas Edison and the vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company, a predecessor of today’s Con Edison electric utility, displayed the first electrically illuminated Christmas tree at his home on Fifth Avenue in New York City. He hand-wired 80 red, white and blue incandescent light bulbs and strung them together around the Christmas tree. The news was published by Detroit Post and Tribune that read:

“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 and 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.”

And Edward Johnson became the father of Electric Christmas Tree Light. Electric tree light became a national phenomena in the US when Grover Cleveland and Frances Cleveland set up a Christmas tree featured electric lights at White House in 1895 and by 1900 businesses started to string up “Christmas Light” behind their window as well. But price of these lights were too expensive for average people to afford. Therefore, electric Christmas lights did not become the majority replacement for candles until 1930.

Soon after the large popularity of electric lights credited to Albert Sadacca, who convinced his parents to use the material from their novelty lighting business to produce affordable tree light sets, strings of Christmas lights were found to be in places other than Christmas tree as well. Today, millions and millions of light sets are sold in the whole world during Christmas and New Year but is somewhat still credited to the Pagans who saw life in a branch of a fir tree in the stiffness of Winter, or Martin Luther who witnessed the shiny starts through the evergreens that reminded him of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth at Christmas or the Fifth Avenue in New York City where Edward H, Johnson first displayed his Christmas Lights.

Photo from pixabay

Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_lights


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