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.
Bethany: Is your house on fire, Clark?
Clark: No, Aunt Bethany, those are the Christmas lights.
— From “Christmas Vacation,” Warner Bros. Pictures, 1989
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Aside from Black Friday sale papers, nothing trumpets the holidays' approach as ubiquitously as Christmas lights.
Incandescents and LEDs — shaped like icicles, stars, pearls, bulbs, bells and candles — begin going up in November. They wrap around streetlights, drape over bushes, border holiday banners and blanket trees of every sort.
Those are institutional lights, installed at the behest of downtown merchants, Chambers of Commerce and neighborhood associations. Once Thanksgiving passes, the rest of America gets involved, stringing up lights inside their homes and on their roofs.
Christmas trees rise, some prefabricated and pre-lit. Real trees — Douglas firs, Blue Spruce, Fraser pines and more — make their way from tree farms and retail stores into living rooms, only to be festooned with baubles, garlands, bulbs and, of course, sparkling lights.
For most Americans alive today — indeed, for most people in first world countries — all those hundreds of thousands of blazing bulbs, all those millions, are an essential part of the holidays. Just try to imagine a Christmas without them.
Yet it wasn't always this way.
Holiday lights as we know them are a relatively recent invention, spurred largely by the ability to harness electricity. Their origins, though, go back to a time long ago, when winter nights filled the world with blackness and the return of the sun seemed in doubt.
Some writers say Yule logs were the first holiday lights, ignited by pagans during festivals centered around the winter solstice. Others credit Yule logs as the first lights but offer alternative time frames, saying the practice began somewhere between the 4th and 12th centuries.
“It all started with the pagans,” confidently states a “Mental Floss” blog from 2010. “The ritual use of evergreens and lights during winter celebrations predates Christianity. Their symbolism (life in the dead of winter) must not have been lost on Christians, who adopted the pagan Yule log and began bringing evergreen trees into their homes during the winter.
“In the 17th century, the Germans combined the two elements and the tradition of illuminating the Christmas tree with candles began.”
Blazing candles perched upon the branches of a dead tree?
“Obviously, this was a pretty bad idea,” notes a 2009 piece on the Gizmodo website. “So bad that, unlike today, the tree would only be put up a few days before Christmas and was promptly taken down afterward. … Candles would remain lit only for a few minutes per night, and even then families would sit around the tree and watch it vigilantly, buckets of sand and water nearby. …
“By 1908, insurance companies wouldn't even pay for damages caused by Christmas tree fires. Their exhaustive research demonstrated that burning wax candles that were loosely secured to a dried-out tree inside your house wasn't safe.”
By that point, electric lights were available, albeit at extraordinarily high prices. Thomas Edison, the man credited with inventing the light bulb, made the first string of lights and displayed them outside his Menlo Park laboratory during the Christmas season of 1880. Those lights weren't on a tree, though. That took a couple more years.
“Edward H. Johnson put the very first string of electric Christmas tree lights together in 1882,” according to the Library of Congress website. “Johnson, Edison's friend and partner in the Edison's Illumination Company, hand-wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs and wound them around his Christmas tree. Not only was the tree illuminated with electricity, it also revolved.”
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