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The Dazzling Lighting Displays of Christmas: When Did They All Begin?

by Marjorie Dorfman

How did the custom of lighting Christmas trees begin? How has technology improved and changed holiday lighting displays over the years? These and other primary color issues will be addressed with jovial holiday cheer. Read on for some illumination.

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 God’s 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 today’s money), including the use of the generator and wireman’s 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 wasn’t 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.

In New York City in 1917, a fifteen year old boy named Albert Sadacca got the idea to make Christmas tree lights, inspired by a tragic fire resulting from the use of Christmas candles. His family, who had emigrated from Spain, had a novelty business, selling among other things, wicker cages with imitation birds in them that lit up. Albert adapted some of those products into safe electric lights for Christmas trees. They had many bulbs on hand, making the venture not too risky financially. The first year only one hundred strings of white lights were sold, but then a light bulb (a brightly colored one this time) went off in Albert’s enterprising head. He began to use multi-colored bulbs and the business became multi as well (millions, that is). The company started by Albert Sadacca and his two brothers, Henri and Leon was NOMA Electric Company, and it was the largest of its kind anywhere in the world for all of its years of operation prior to 1965.

It wasn’t until after World War II that the populace of Great Britain generally converted to electrically lit trees. The 1940s produced some of the most beautiful lights ever made. Those made in the late 1930s and 40s by the General Electric Company were licensed from Disney, and depicted Snow White, Cinderella and later, others. There were also Bubble Lights, which were little colored glass tubes with an oil inside, which began to bubble as the light heated up. They are hard to find, as they only sold for about ten years, but recently an American company has begun to market bubble lights again.

The mid 1960s brought other changes. Some American modernist who drank came up with the idea of the silver aluminum trees. They took off and became very popular in Britain as well. The "Silver Pine Tree," patented in the 1950s, was designed to have a revolving light source under it, with colored gelatine windows, which allowed the light to shine in different shades as it revolved under the tree. No decorations were needed for this tree as it already had too many colors for the eye to focus on. America made a return to Victorian nostalgia in the 1970s and later Britain followed the fashion. Even though real Christmas trees were popular, the convenience of having a 14-foot Spruce in the living room without so much as a single dropped pine needle was too much for many a practical housewife to resist. Pine scented sprays fostered the illusion, and if you didn’t look too closely, you didn’t know, couldn’t tell or perhaps even care less.

Like the words of the old Cole Porter song, anything goes today. Fake trees, real trees, whatever floats one’s boat is fine. It’s the symbol and meaning of it all that counts, rather than the dazzle of lights and the size of the tree. All of us, whatever our faiths or backgrounds, reflect at this time of year on our achievements, failures, misunderstandings etc. It’s rather nice to reflect amid a display of lights, and the more the merrier, don’t you think?

Happy Holidays and Festivals of Lights and Stars To All. And To All A Good Night.

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2004