Published 20 December 2017 Category: Compass Leisure

Christmas Lights - A Brief History

Thomas Edison was known for his wacky publicity stunts, but during the Christmas of 1880 he went for the sentimental rather than shock value. That year, he brought us the first electric Christmas light display.

By the time 1880 rolled around, Edison had his incandescent light bulbs pretty well figured out, and was on the lookout for a way to advertise them. But here’s the catch -  Edison's marketing trick during that holiday season. To display his invention as a means of heightening Yuletide excitement, he strung up incandescent bulbs all around his Menlo Park laboratory compound, so that passing commuters on the nearby railway could see the Christmas miracle. But Edison being Edison, he decided to make the challenge a little tricker by powering the lights from a remote generator eight miles away.

The tradition of stringing electric lights may have started as a Christmas thing in America, but now it's a global phenomenon used for all kinds of festivities. It's a practice we take for granted - come December, they're everywhere and elsewhere from wedding parties to baby showers; they’re all over. The evolution of the Christmas light parallels that of the light bulb, with some remarkably ornate – and tacky variations. But regardless of how they look, one thing's for certain: They're a much better option than sticking a candle in a tree.

In the Beginning, There was Fire
Today we look at Christmas lights and think "Oh, those are pretty." But the tradition of lighting lights in the winter months didn't start off with aesthetics in mind. December is the darkest month of the year with the shortest days. People living without central heating in the 12th century were understandably unhappy when the sun went down and plunged them into the cold depths of night.

The Christmas tree has a whole story behind it that we won't get into here. Long story short, Christians had lights, they had trees, and in the 17th century, they decided to put the two together.

Unfortunately, the only way to add Christmas lights to a tree back then was with candles. Obviously, this was a pretty bad idea. So bad that, unlike today, the tree would only be put up a few days before Christmas and was promptly taken down afterwards. Back then, the candles would remain lit only for a few minutes per night, and even then families would sit around the tree and watch it vigilantly, buckets of sand and water nearby. It's kind of like the old-timey equivalent of deep-frying a turkey: People knew it could burn their house down, but proceeded to do it anyway.

By 1908, insurance companies wouldn't even pay for damages caused by Christmas tree fires. Their exhaustive research demonstrated that burning wax candles that were loosely secured to a dried-out tree inside your house wasn't safe and electric Christmas lights were becoming a viable option. They weren't perfect, but it was a much safer option than lighting multiple fires so close to their favourite fuel.

Keep in mind that back in the day, only the extremely rich could afford Christmas lights. In 1900, a single string of electric lights cost $12 - around $300 in today's money. It would take the magic of mass manufacturing to create the neighborhood light displays would become an American tradition, which spread throughout the world.

In 1900, eight years after General Electric purchased the patent rights to Edison's bulbs, the first known advertisement for Christmas tree lights appeared in the Scientific American Magazine. As mentioned earlier, these suckers weren't cheap. They were so expensive that the ad suggests renting lights for a holiday display.
Twenty-five years later, demand was up. There were 15 companies in the biz of selling Christmas lights, and in 1925 they formed a consortium called the NOMA Electric Corporation, the largest Christmas light manufacturer in the world.

A Long Way From Candles
The basic foundation of the Christmas light, the incandescent bulb, hardly changed for nearly a century, and is only now undergoing is first major revolution, as we start replacing our old tungsten lights with energy-efficient LEDs. Yet, in that same time, we've gone from sticking burning candles in a tree to creating massive, computer-controlled - and completely excessive, light displays.

One thing's for sure: No matter what the technology at hand, no matter what the reason to celebrate, the human desire to light up trees and houses will forever be a source for amazing - and often hilarious - innovation.