The story of Christmas lights cannot be told without the story of their counterpart; the Christmas tree. When I was a freshman in college, back in the days when Abraham Lincoln was president, I had two roommates, one Catholic and one Protestant. We all got along fine except for one week near the holidays when they were only speaking to each other through an intermediary; namely, me. They had a fight about who invented the Christmas tree. I remained neutral, being non-partisan, non-Christian and only sort of Jewish. As it turned out, both of them were right and they could have remained friends after all.
The origins of the Christmas tree date back to the 7th century when St. Boniface, a monk from Crediton, Devonshire, went to Germany to teach the word of God. There he did many good things, and spent much time in Thuringia, an area that was to become the cradle of the Christmas decoration industry. He used the triangular shape of the Fir tree to represent the Holy Trinity of God; the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The FirTree became Gods Tree and by the 12th century, it was being hung, upside-down, from ceilings at Christmas-time in Central Europe, as a symbol of Christianity. The first decorated tree, however, goes back to the 16th century, when it is said that Martin Luther decorated a small Christmas tree with candles to show his children how the stars twinkled throughout the dark night.
Throughout the centuries candles have been used as a source of light for everything, including Christmas tree ornamentation. In the 1840s in Germany, where fine beaded decorations and tinsel angels were popular, candles were often placed in wooden hoops for safety. Still, there was always danger, always the risk of fire. There were many experiments conducted in the late 19th century to create safe holders, everything from hoops to counter balanced metal holders and decorated clips. By the 1870s, glass ornaments imported from Britain became very popular and were featured in stores like FW Woolworth. American patents for electric lights quickly followed in 1882 and in 1892 for metal hooks, which provided for the safer hanging of decorations. Experiments with gas lights (many of which blew up) and early electric lights were done at the end of the century.
The American custom of using electric lights began in 1882, when Edward Johnson, an associate of Thomas Edison, hand-wired 80 red, white and blue bulbs and wound them around a rotating evergreen tree. The tree was in the parlor of his New York home, located in the first section of the city to be wired for electricity (the downtown Wall Street area). In 1895, Grover Cleveland helped to popularize the custom by being the first president to commission a White House tree lighted with Edison bulbs. It was an enormous evergreen, featuring more than one hundred multi-colored lights. Soon, members of "high society" were hosting Christmas tree-lighting parties, which were grand and very expensive events. A typical lighted tree of the early 1900s cost a minimum of $300 (more than $2,000 in todays money), including the use of the generator and wiremans services.
Still out of reach for the average American family, more adventurous souls wired less expensive battery-operated lighting strings to decorate their holiday trees. In fact, an article in Popular Electricity Magazine was written for children, explaining how they could help in lighting the family tree by using battery-powered electric lights. The back of the magazine contained instructions on how to order the necessary components: wire, sockets and light bulbs. General Electric even offered miniature light bulbs for rent in some cities, as a cheaper alternative to the purchase of expensive lamps. But it wasnt until 1903 that electrical lighting became truly practical, and it was once again General Electric who came to the lighted rescue.
In that very year, General Electric offered a pre-assembled lighting "outfit" for the very first time. Still costly at $12.00 (the average weekly wage for a worker and the equivalent of about $80.00 today), many department stores in the larger, electrified cities would rent "outfits" called "festoons" for the season at a cost of $1.50. The festoon consisted of eight green pre-wired porcelain sockets, eight Edison miniature colored glass lamps and a screw-in plug for easy attachment to a nearby wall or ceiling light socket.
General Electric did not, however, manufacture the string used for the lights. The American Eveready Company (yes, the battery people) did that. A few years later, Eveready did sell their own festoons under their own name but they could not get a patent for their lighting strings. The United States Patent Office declared that the socket sets could not be patented because they were based on "common electrical knowledge" and not actually a new invention. Still, other companies began offering lighting sets of their own and (eureka, lightbulb and all) the American electric Christmas lighting industry was born.
Germany created many attractive figural lights, using the same technique as for making tree ornaments, but after World War One, milk-glass lights, so called because the glass itself was an opaque white, were being made in Japan and in America. Still, many people preferred traditional Christmas candles to lights.