Monday, December 12, 2011

Apple #562: Christmas Lights

A Daily Apple reader, Zim, stopped by and looked for an entry on Christmas lights. Not finding any, he (or she?) suggested I make one. Your wish, Zim, is my Daily Apple.

Zim, I'm assuming you mean strings of lights like these.
(Photo by Camelot Living)

  • It all boils down to the fact that Christmas comes at the darkest time of the year, literally in the weeks when we have the least daylight. For centuries people have been lighting lights and candles and luminaries and Yule logs and fires, all sorts of methods of illumination to try to combat the darkness of winter.
  • So the first Christmas lights weren't light bulbs but candles.
  • But the direct ancestor, the parents let's say, of the Christmas lights were the candles on the Christmas tree.
  • That's right, people used to put open flames on the branches of very sappy and flammable pine trees. It was very dangerous, and there are some reports that families used to light the candles on the tree only once and only briefly on Christmas Eve, and they all stood waiting with buckets of water at the ready in case the whole thing went up in flames. Which did happen sometimes.

Christmas tree decorated with candles, date unknown. I wonder if everyone is so close to the tree because they want to be ready at a moment's notice in case the whole thing goes up in flames.
(Image from the Christmas Archives)

  • A lot of sources say that the Germans were the first people to have the lit and decorated Christmas tree, or that Americans borrowed the tradition from German immigrants who lit and decorated their trees.
  • But actually, a German fraternity (back in the day, fraternities were more brotherhoods of adult men rather than collections of hard-drinking college guys) called Black's Fraternity researched the origins of their Christmas tree traditions, and they maintained that the first decorated tree was in Riga, Latvia, in 1510.
    • Here's another little aside for you: legend has it that even before the lit-up tree in Riga in 1510, a 7th century monk who was from England but who was doing his monk thing in Germany decided to use the triangular shape of the fir tree as a way of demonstrating the Holy Trinity. This caught on, but over time, the use of the symbol changed somewhat. In the 12th century, Germans were hanging fir trees from their ceilings upside down, as a representation of the Trinity.
  • OK, back to the lights. So people were putting candles on their trees. Not so safe. Especially since they affixed the candles to the branches by melting a pool of wax on the branch and sticking the stub end of the candle into the wax.
  • They tried various alternatives. One guy invented a clip-on candle holder so that you didn't have to mess around with the wax. Some people used oil lamps because they could be attached to the branches and they didn't have the open flame problems that candles did. But the oil lamps were heavy and fell in among the branches, or smoked, and in the end weren't that much safer.

    Clip-on candle holders looked something like this. These are currently available--apparently they're coming back into fashion again. Note that these candles are outside and they are not lit. Probably the safest choice.
    (Photo from Mother Goose Online)

    • The real innovation happened thanks to Thomas Edison.
    • Edison invented the incandescent light bulb in 1879. To put his invention on display for people and to prove how wonderfully his bulbs worked, he put on a magnificent light display around Menlo Park. Some sources say this happened "during the Christmas season" in 1879, and other sources say he did this on New Year's Eve 1879-1880. So I'm not sure we can officially call this the first display of Christmas lights per se.
    • But the first Christmas tree decorated with electric lights happened not long after that. The Library of Congress says that it was Edison's friend, Edward Johnson, who first put incandescent light bulbs on a string and wound the string around a Christmas tree. The lights were red, white, and blue, and there were 80 of them. This was in 1882. Oh, and the Christmas tree also revolved. The miracles of modern electricity.
    • Although people were delighted by the display, electricity and electric lights remained far too expensive for most people to afford them. In 1900, a sixteen-foot strand of lights cost $12. Posh! you say. That's how much they cost now! Ah, but in 1900, $12 was roughly equivalent to today's $300.

    This is the first known ad for Christmas tree lights. It appeared in Scientific American in 1900.
    (Image from Gizmodo)

    • According to some estimates, before 1903, today's average Christmas tree would have cost today's equivalent of $2,000.
    • Various innovations were made to the electric Christmas lights. They were made so they didn't get as hot, they were strung on parallel wires so that if one bulb went out, the whole thing didn't go out. Slowly, the cost for electric lights began to go down and indoor electrically lit Christmas trees began to get more popular.
    • It's not clear when exactly the first outdoor electrically lit Christmas trees began to appear. But the first really public and famous one was lit by President Coolidge in 1923. Previous Presidents had had indoor electrically-lit trees, but this was the first Presidential outdoor one. It was a 48-foot tree with 2500 lights.
    • Two years later, in 1925, the first strings of outdoor lights were available for sale to the public. They were still expensive, got too hot, and weren't all that easy to use, but their popularity began to spread.

    These two girls are standing next to their outdoor Christmas tree, some time in the 1920s. I can't tell if it's got lights on it or not. Those might be lights in that left photo. Anyway, that tree is pretty short and scraggly compared to our standards today. 
    (Photo was on sale at eBay. Probably by the time you read this, it won't be any longer.)

    • It took various New Deal programs in the 1930s that brought electricity to more people, especially in rural areas, for the electric Christmas lights to begin to gain a foothold among the majority of the population.

      Here's one house decorated with electric lights in 1937. At that time, each bulb used 9 watts. By comparison, a typical string of 50 mini lights today uses about 25 watts. Fifty of those 1937 bulbs would therefore use 450 watts. Yikes.
      (Photo from Papa Ted's Place)

      • During World War II, people were supposed to conserve electricity and there simply weren't as many resources available to manufacture non-essential things like Christmas lights. But even though people weren't supposed to use them, especially not outdoor lights, they wanted to buy them. People saw Christmas lights, especially on their indoor Christmas trees, as a source of comfort, a sign of home and family and warmth in a difficult time. But because of the shortages, there simply weren't enough available to meet the demand.
      • After the War, Christmas lights boomed along with everything else. Throughout the 1950s companies began to innovate all sorts of features and variations. There were bubble Christmas lights, miniature ones, sparkling ones, twinkling ones, blinking ones, elfin ones, star-shaped ones.

      This is what the bubble lights looked like. Apparently they contained a liquid that, when heated, would bubble, causing the light to flicker. Sounds kind of like a mini lava lamp.
      (Photo from Chuckman's Photos on Wordpress)

      Here's one family and their Christmas tree from some time in the 1950s. Nice curtains! Note also the electric candles on the windowsill at the left.
      (Photo from 1950s Atomic Ranch House)

      • Outdoor light displays boomed too. In 1957, Rockefeller Center boasted of its sixty-five foot lit-up tree. The Miracle Mile in Los Angeles featured 27 giant illuminated snowmen. Communities held outdoor lighting display competitions, and it wasn't long until suburbs across the country were lined with Christmas lights.
      • That's pretty much been the situation ever since. In the 1980s the large cone-shaped lights returned to general popularity. In the 1990s, the trickling icicle varieties became popular, even though those used far more electricity than the single large bulbs.
      • Now the strings of LED lights are popular. They're way more energy efficient, but I have to say I find them hard to look at. Something about the low light especially in the ones that twinkle makes them not so easy on the eyes.

      The 2011 National Christmas tree on the Ellipse in front of the White House. There are way more than 2500 lights on that tree.
      (Photo from the Fairfax at Embassy Row)

      More resources: Skating at Rockefeller Center

      Brian Murray, Christmas Lights and Community Building in America
      Gizmodo, Christmas Lights, the Brief and Strangely Interesting History of
      Library of Congress Everyday Mysteries, Who invented electric Christmas lights?
      The Christmas Archives, The Chronological History of the Christmas Tree
      Home of the First Christmas Tree
      Howstuffworks, Christmas mini-lights


      1. Hey! Thank you!!! ^^
        Very interesting article. I'll keep away from candles for sure...
        I'm surprised about how much the Christmas tradition has changed through the last decades and centuries.
        I'll try to translate/adapt this article to Spanish, if I do I'll comment back here with the link! :D

      2. Thank you, Apple Lady. I'm absolutely in love with old-fashioned ceramic Christmas lights. I've started putting them all around the outside of my house. Other people who live in the house aren't as keen about the idea as I am, but I love the nostalgia (a.k.a. the tackiness).

      3. Zim, I would hope that if you translated or used any of what I have written, you would credit your source!

        Jarred, do you mean these lit-up trees?

        I have one of these! It was my mom's for years. The angel on top has long disappeared, but I still put out the tree every year, and I love it.

      4. Sure, I will credit you! I wouldn't steal your content =)

        So far I've been very busy at work (and home) to do it, but I will translate it as soon as I can.

        Hope you had a great Christmas! :D

      5. It’s great to see the local government promote the use of LED lights. More and more people are now appreciating its benefits. It’s no wonder it is very popular these days and many people prefer to use it instead of those traditional lights.


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