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Untangling the History of Christmas Lights

Are you the kind of person who methodically puts away your Christmas lights each year in January making sure that they’re still working and that they’re neatly stored for easy access the next time you need them? Or do you shove them in the storage box, and hope that the tangled mess will continue to twinkle for years to come?

Whatever your preference, have you ever given a thought to why we decorate our Christmas trees with lights and how they became a staple decoration at Christmas time?

It All Started with Candles

People decorated trees with light long before electricity was invented. It’s said that the pagans used evergreens and lights during their winter celebrations and rituals, and their yule log still forms part of the Christmas celebrations today.

In the 17th century, Christian Germans brought their yuletide tree indoors and illuminated it with candles that were carefully attached with a pin or melted wax. A lit candle was also placed in the window of their house to show that it was a Christian house and that fellow Christians were welcome to visit and worship Christ together with the residents, a tradition that spread from Germany throughout Eastern Europe.

 

From Wax to Electricity

Fast forward to 1880, and we see Thomas Edison displaying the first outdoor electric light at Christmas outside the compound surrounding his laboratory. As the compound was near to a railway line, many people were able to see the new miracle of electricity.

A couple of years later in 1882, Edward Johnson, one of Edison’s protégées created the first string of electric lights with 80 red, white and blue bulbs, each of which was the size of a walnut. By 1890, the lights were in mass production and were displayed in department stores throughout the country. By the end of the century, the displays spread from retail stores to government buildings, and as the lights became more affordable over the following decades, they were seen adorning private homes too.

 

An Expensive and Dangerous Display

While Christmas trees twinkling with lights look beautiful, the dazzling displays did come at a cost. Not only did it take time and effort to decorate a tree with electric lights, it also took quite a sum of money.

For this reason, many people still used the traditional way of lighting their tree by attaching candles to the branches. However, unlike today’s modern displays, trees were usually only put up a few days before Christmas Day, and the candles would only be lit for a maximum of thirty minutes during the evening. Even so, every wise householder kept a bucket of water close by to the display in case the tree caught alight.

For those lucky enough to be able to afford to drape their trees with electric lights, unsurprisingly they chose to display their tree in the window so that people outside could also admire the display. The first lights could cost anything up to $300 dollars, a sum which equates to more than £1,500 now, as the wiring of these lights required the services of a wireman to hand wire each light onto the tree and the use of a generator.

 

Christmas Lights for the Masses

In 1925, the Sadacca brothers formed a company called NOMA (National Outfit Manufacturers) by uniting 15 existing Christmas light companies. One of the brothers, Albert, had been inspired to create safe and affordable Christmas lights after a devastating fire caused by Christmas tree candles in New York City.

NOMA mass-produced Christmas lights until 1968 when the company hit bankruptcy and finally closed its doors due to the increasing competition from other companies and foreign imports.

 

Today the Sky is the Limit

Today’s Christmas lights are an affordable option for all, and the availability of a wide selection of white and coloured lights makes it possible to create amazing displays both inside and outdoors. Many people set up magnificent displays outside their own homes, with everything from flashing neon reindeers to twinkling icicle strings.

Advances in technology have meant that LED lights which are energy efficient and help to reduce carbon emissions are both effective and affordable and come in many permutations and power options, from solar powered to those that are powered by batteries, USB or electricity.

And it also seems that Christmas lights are no longer the reserve of Christmas with many people choosing to adorn their homes both inside and out with ‘fairy’ lights throughout the year.

But whether you believe lights are for Christmas only or you keep your lights up all year round, you can always experience the magic of amazing lighting in your home by visiting our Christopher Wray showroom for some illuminating inspiration.