Every year, Christmas seems to become a bigger and brighter holiday. But while the Christmas tree may have originated in Germany, the twinkling lights on the trees – and now on our homes and businesses – are distinctly American.
The custom of stringing lights was initiated back when Christmas trees were decorated with candles, to symbolize Christ being the light of the world. Obviously, this wasn’t the safest tradition, and many holiday house fires were attributed to such candles. Thankfully, electric lights became popular in the early 20th century. By the middle of the century, more and more communities began displaying electric lights along streets and on buildings. Many of these lights are set up by businesses and local governments, adoring public squares, trees, lamp posts, streets, and other structures.
By the 1960s, as tract housing increased in popularity and sheer number, residents started outlining their homes in weather-proof Christmas lights. Now the act of decorating outdoors with Christmas lights is a worldwide phenomenon.
For many families, it’s a holiday tradition to drive or walk around neighborhoods at night to see homes lit up. Some are fairly modest, while a select few require a generator or separate electrical source to supply the required power for all those lights. In some areas, Christmas lighting has become a competition to win the award for the best-decorated house, while other neighborhoods adopt a more cooperative approach to beautiful their streets and homes.
Edison Lights the Way
It’s not a huge surprise that Christmas lights were thought up by someone who worked at a lighting company. Thomas Edison created the first commercially practical incandescent light in 1879. Three years later in 1882, Edward Hibberd Johnson, who was a partner of Edison’s and the vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company, had an idea to light up a Christmas tree in set up by a street-facing window of his New York City home.
Johnson hand-wired and strung together 80 red, white and blue light bulbs and wrapped them around the tree. He even went a step further and placed the tree on a revolving, generator-powered pedestal so passers-buyers could stop to peer at the glowing marvel. Johnson is credited with having the first electrically illuminated Christmas tree, and he kept up the tradition, adding more bulbs with each passing year.
Soon, presidents got in on the action. In 1895, President Grover Cleveland had the White House family Christmas tree illuminated with hundreds of multi-colored electric light bulbs. And in 1923, President Calvin Coolidge began a tradition of lighting the National Christmas Tree with 3,000 electric lights.
Lights Go Up and Prices Come Down
Johnson’s lights were ahead of their time because electricity was not yet widely or routinely available, and lights weren’t cheap and required an electrician. Back in 1900, a string of 16 bulbs sold for about $350 in today’s money. To light, an entire tree would cost about $2,00 in today’s dollars. But once General Electric began to offer pre-assembled kits of Christmas lights, the prices came down and the popularity soared.
There are now an estimated 150 million sets of light sold in America each year, plus countless millions more tangled up and stuffed back into boxes each January. These lights illuminate 80 million homes, accounting for 6 percent of the nation’s electrical load each December.