Bethany: Is your house on fire, Clark?
Clark: No, Aunt Bethany, those are the Christmas lights.
— From “Christmas Vacation,” Warner Bros. Pictures, 1989
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.”
People remained wary of electric lights, though, even after President Grover Cleveland ordered up hundreds of electric bulbs for his indoor tree in 1895.
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.
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