A blazing, blinding holiday tradition
Christmas lights date back hundreds of years, but only in recent times have we turned them into a blindingly bright holiday tradition.
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Until General Electric began producing pre-assembled holiday light kits in 1903, the costs were prohibitive.
“The wiring of electric lights was very expensive and required the hiring of the services of a wireman, our modern-day electrician,” the Library of Congress site notes. “According to some, to light an average Christmas tree with electric lights before 1903 would have cost $2,000 in today's dollars.”
The person most responsible for the holiday lights we've grown accustomed to may have been a teenage whiz kid named Albert Sadacca.
“A tragic fire in New York City in 1917, caused by the continuing practice of lighting the highly flammable tree with candles, gave 15-year-old … Sadacca an idea,” according to the National Electric Contractors Association's website. “Now it just so happened that Albert's family, who had come from Spain, had a novelty business selling wicker cages with imitation birds in them that lit up.
“Albert suggested to his parents that they begin making electric lights for Christmas trees. They had lots of bulbs on hand, and it would be much safer than using candles. The Sadaccas thought Albert had a good idea, but only one hundred strings of electric Christmas tree lights sold in the first year. After Albert thought of painting the bulbs red, green and other colors instead of using plain glass, business picked up sharply. Albert became the head of a multi-million dollar company.”
Other factors were at play, too. As electricity spread throughout the country, growing in use and popularity, fears lessened. More companies began selling light kits, not only in typical bulbs but in novelty shapes such as fruit, flowers and Christmas figures.
Manufacturers branched out over the years, creating illuminated, molded plastic Nativity scenes, reindeer and candles for outdoor displays. Pre-lit wicker or wire frame decorations have grown common. Now it's hard to picture the holidays without all the lights.
Holiday lighting, as Albert Sadacca learned, is big business. Last year, MSN reported, the National Research Federation and BIG Research estimated that Americans would spend about $6 billion on Christmas decorations — easily the most spent in the seven years for which tracking data was available. An estimated 150 million light sets were purchased last year (although it's unclear if that was in the U.S. only or worldwide). Seasonal businesses install lights and other decorations for those too busy or unable to do it themselves.
Those most devoted to holiday lights wouldn't dream of paying someone else to decorate.
Consider Al Thompson, for example.
“Every year since 1999, Thompson, 64, has covered the exterior of his suburban home, just outside Richmond, Va., with approximately 170,000 lights, as well as 500 Christmas-themed figures — all built from scratch,” Bloomberg Businessweek reported in 2010. “The process, which begins after Labor Day, takes 400 hours. His electrical bill for December 2009 was $1,128.23. …
“In 2007, Thompson beat out New York City's Fifth Avenue in USA Today's ‘10 great places to plug into Christmas spirit.' More important, last year he won the coveted Most Likely To Be Seen From Space award from Tacky Light Tour, a Christmas-light enthusiast website.”
Safe to say we've come a long way from lighting Yule logs in the dark.