Christmas Lights: Illuminating Our Holidays Since The 17th Century

Right after Thanksgiving, out come the Christmas lights. Some neighborhoods have contests to see who can outdo the other, and the competition is fierce, but Christmas lights are a grand tradition that used to be much harder to do and more dangerous than they are now.

I’ve seen some houses where homeowners go all out and have coordinated music syncing with the lights. Syncing the lights with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra seems to be a fan favorite.

How did this fascination with lights during the Christmas season begin? Early on, before electricity was widely available, folks used to light their Christmas trees with candles. This custom dates back to the 1660s in Germany.

In 1856, President Franklin Pierce brought candlelit trees to the White House.

Christmas Lights: Illuminating Our Holidays
What is a home without love? J. D. Cress, c1900. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Using candles was problematic because keeping them on the branches was hard. People would use needles and melted wax or string to keep the candles on the tree in place without much success.

In 1867, Charles Kirchhof patented a weighted candle holder, trying to improve the stability of the candles. In 1878, Frederick Artz invented a clip-on device to hold the candles in place.

Christmas Lights: Illuminating Our Holidays
Photo credit: Corning Museum of Glass


There still was one major problem: Fire. Christmas tree fires were so common that by 1908, insurance companies warned they wouldn’t cover any losses caused by Christmas tree fires.

In 1917, a house fire from a candlelit tree gave a seventeen-year-old, Albert Sadacca, an idea. He and his family hailed from Spain, and they produced a novelty wicker bird cage that lit up. He strung the cages together and painted the bulbs green and red. He and his brothers formed the NOMA Electric Company, and their name became infamous in the Christmas light industry.

In 1880, Thomas Edison created the first string of Christmas lights that he hung outside his lab in Menlo Park. His friend and associate, Edward H. Johnson, made the first string of Christmas lights meant for a Christmas tree. His string of Christmas lights had red, white, and blue bulbs. Christmas tree lights were born.

Christmas Lights: Illuminating Our Holidays
Circa 1903-4 The Antique Christmas Lights Museum

In 1903, General Electric began offering Christmas tree light kits to the public. These were reserved for the wealthy as they were expensive and required an electrician to install them. The NY Times dubbed them “extravagant.” Even with the great invention of electricity, there was still much distrust. By 1884, only ten percent of Americans had electricity in their homes.

On Christmas Eve 1923, President Calvin Coolidge celebrated the holiday and lit the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse, south of the White House, with three thousand lights.  

The Potomac Electric Company proudly lit up the holiday handily, to adults’ amazement and children’s delight.

Christmas Lights: Illuminating Our Holidays
Potomac Electric Power, Christmas greetings. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Electricity also caused fires. In 1943, Bing Crosby, of the “White Christmas” fame, lost his Toluca Lake mansion on 10500 Camarillo Street due to faulty Christmas tree lights wiring.

His wife, Dixie Lee, home alone at the time with their four boys, was taking the Christmas tree down. She had just put the boys to bed and returned downstairs to see the tree in flames. She raced upstairs, grabbed the boys, and ran to safety next door to Crosby’s brother Larry’s house. The Crosby home went up in a flash.

It was a twenty-three-room mansion that took four engine companies to fight the blaze. Firefighters could only save the living room, kitchen, and servants’ quarters. Crosby lost all of the memorabilia he had collected over years in show business and his pipes, vinyl records, trophies, and awards. Crosby found one charred sports shoe, but he was grateful his family was safe.


Christmas Lights: Illuminating Our Holidays
Photo credit: The Internet Archives

I remember getting burned when I touched the old-fashioned Christmas lights as a kid. Then came the mini-light, which didn’t burn quite as hot as it did back in the 1960s. Today’s lights are much safer, especially with the birth of the LED bulb, which uses less electricity and are cool to the touch.

Christmas lights bring out the kid in me. I’m excited to see the displays each year, and they keep getting better and better. So get out there, take a drive and enjoy the displays in your neighborhood. It’s a great escape from our screens and an opportunity to take in the holidays’ sights, sounds, and traditions. 

(Featured image: Wikimedia Commons)

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