The tradition of Christmas lights likely has its roots in the yule log, one of the most widespread Christmas traditions in early modern Europe. A yule log was a large block, meant to burn for a portion of each of the twelve days of Christmas. A small remnant would be preserved to light the next year’s yule log, thus preserving the the spirit of Christmas year-round.
As Christmas traditions evolved and became more elaborate, the light and warmth of the yule log made its way to the Christmas tree in the form of candles clipped to the branches and lit for a short time each night during the holiday season. Initially prominent in wealthy European homes, even Queen Victoria wrote about this festivity in her diary as a child: “After dinner… we went into the drawing-room… There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments.” The Christmas tree lighting ritual spread to households in the United States and while beautiful, the tradition was obviously dangerous, eventually resulting in insurance companies refusing to pay for Christmas tree fire damage as of 1908.
Meanwhile, in 1882 in a New York City townhouse, Edward Hibberd Johnson had an idea that would change the Christmas landscape forever. Ten years prior, Johnson had hired Thomas Edison, a then 24 year old inventor, to work for the Automatic Telegraph Company. Impressed by Edison’s vision and tenacity, Johnson followed Edison to start a new company, turning his inventions into cash. In 1880, Edison patented the light bulb, but its true value was still hard to gauge as widespread electrification was years away. Still, Johnson, Edison and others invested large sums to start the Edison Lamp Company to sell the bulbs.
Before long, Johnson had a bright idea. Setting up a tree by the street-side window of his parlor, the savvy businessman/engineer/showman hand-wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs and strung them together around it, and placed the trunk on a revolving pedestal, all powered by a generator. Then he called a reporter. “At the rear of the beautiful parlors, was a large Christmas tree presenting a most picturesque and uncanny aspect,” wrote W.A. Croffut, a veteran writer for the Detroit Post and Tribune. “It was brilliantly lighted with…eighty lights in all encased in these dainty glass eggs, and about equally divided between white, red and blue….One can hardly imagine anything prettier.” The lights drew a crowd as passers-by stopped to peer at the glowing marvel. Johnson turned his stunt into a tradition; he also pioneered the practice of doing more each year: An 1884 New York Times article counted 120 bulbs on his dazzling tree.
Johnson’s lights were indeed ahead of their time—electricity was not yet routinely available—and they weren’t cheap. A string of 16 vaguely flame-shaped bulbs sitting in brass sockets the size of shot glasses sold for a pricey $12 (about $350 in today’s market) in 1900. But in 1894 President Cleveland put electric lights on the White House tree, and by 1914, a 16-foot string cost just $1.75. By the 1930s, colored bulbs were everywhere.
Today an estimated 150 million light sets are sold in America each year, adding to the tangled millions stuffed into boxes each January. They light 80 million homes and consume 6 percent of the nation’s electrical load each December. The record for lights at a home, including the lawn, is 601,736 bulbs, far surpassing Johnson’s tree with 120, but perhaps only just matching his brilliance.
Historians say that people tend to look for traditions and symbols of hope in times of uncertainty. In the mid-20th century, post-depression, post-war era, Americans embraced the inspirational symbolism that Christmas light displays offered. President Eisenhower explained the tradition at the first annual National Christmas tree lighting ceremony in 1957: “The custom we now observe brings us together for a few minutes on this one night – you and I are not alone in a world indifferent and cold. We are part of a numerous company, united in the brotherhood of Christmas.”
The evolution of Christmas lights continues, from the iconic bubble light of the 1940’s to lights that twinkle, flash and “dance” to favorite holiday tunes. In recent decades we’ve replaced our old incandescent bulbs with energy-efficient LED lights, allowing us to create huge, computer-controlled holiday lighting displays, both at home and in public spaces, making it possible for millions of people of every persuasion to be uplifted and comforted by the spirit of Christmas.