picture a Victorina Christmas tree charmingly lit with candles,
but the truth is the candles were very dangerous and inconvenient.
Electric: A History of Holiday Lights
Today one can hardly find
a street in North America during the month of December where the
majority of houses are not lit up with a dazzling display of hundreds
or even thousands of tiny electric lights. A few extreme homes
may even have decorations that flash in sequence to the music
of Trans-Siberian Orchestra or Mannheim Steamroller.
Where did these traditions come from and when did Christmas become
The history of holiday lighting
doesn't start with electricity at all. It starts with candles.
Legend has it that Martin Luther, the Protestant church reformer,
came up with the idea of placing lighted candles on a Yule tree.
There's no real evidence for his, but we do know that around the
middle of the 17th century the tradition of lighting the Yule
tree with small candles started somewhere in Germany. Over the
next 200 years the idea spread through that country and much of
Eastern Europe. Originally, the candles were just attached to
the tree by dripping hot wax on the branch and pressing the base
of the candle on to it. Later, pins were used to secure the candles
to the tree.
In the mid-19th century, however,
candle holders which were designed just for this purpose began
to come onto the market. They came in three forms. Some were small
lanterns designed to be hung from the branches (these could also
be used for decorative lighting around or outside the home too).
Others were clips that attached to branches and were molded in
the shape of a holiday figure like Santa Claus. The
last kind and perhaps the most unusual of the three was designed
to hang from the tree's branches. Unlike the lanterns, however,
these holders put the candle at the very top. To keep the candles
upright, the devices used a long counterweight that hung under
or to the side of the tree branch.
Though no doubt a tree lit
with candles was a charming sight, but it was also dangerous.
The open flames coming in contact with pine needles, especially
on a dried-out tree, could easily generate a fire. For this reason
most homeowners kept a bucket of water or sand near the tree to
take care of such emergencies.
types of candle holders: Lantern, counterweight and clip.
Candles were also inconvenient.
They needed to be lit one by one and left drippings on the floor
(at least until the invention of the "Christmas Rug" which sat
under the tree to catch any errant drops of wax). As they were
small, the candles could also be burnt only a short time and typically
were not lit for an entire evening. This limited the enjoyment
people got from them.
In 1879 Thomas Edison's company
built the first practical electric light bulb and the next year
during the yule season Edison had his Menlo Park laboratory decorated
with strings of electric lights. A couple of years later in 1882,
Edward H. Johnson, vice-president of Edison's electric light company,
opened his home to a reporter to show him a Christmas tree decorated
with 80 electric bulbs. According to the story the reporter filed,
the lights were encased in "dainty glass eggs and about equally
divided between white, red and blue." The tree was on a box that
turned and the lights alternated on and off. "It was a superb
exhibition," proclaimed the article.
In 1895 President Cleveland
had an electrically lighted Christmas tree installed in the White
House and soon electric lights in trees became popular with the
well-to-do, the only people who could really afford such an extravagant
display. Because electric light sets hadn't yet been invented
yet, miniature bulbs would have to be purchased (or rented) from
Edison's company and hand connected to the wires, a time-consuming
effort that might cost hundreds of dollars and required the skills
of an electrician.
General Electric was the first
to market a light set in 1903. Referred to as "festoons," the
24-bulb set was priced at $12. While this might not seem too expensive
today, the cost was still far out of reach of most ordinary people.
lights by Paramount were probably manufactured in the 1930's.
These early sets did not plug
into a wall socket like ours do today. Houses in those days were
wired only for lighting so the end of the string had to be in
the shape of a screw-in light bulb base so that it could connect
into an existing wall lamp or ceiling socket.
To get around this problem,
light sets that ran on batteries soon began to appear. An early
set from the Excelsior Supply Company of Chicago boasted "No Smoke,
No Dirt, No Grease, No Danger from Fire." Also "Candles are Dangerous.
Electric Lights are Safe."
Despite this claim, electric
lights - especially those connected to house current - were not
always perfectly safe. Worn wiring could spark a fire. Also, in
some early sets the bulbs were wired in parallel with each bulb
getting the full 110 house voltage. The early bulbs with this
amount of power burned very hot and could potentially set a dry
tree on fire. For this reason some companies introduced serially
Light sets wired in serial
were generally cheaper to make as a single wire ran from light
socket to light socket to make a full circuit. Because of this
the 110 volts was divided among all the bulbs making each bulb
Serial light sets, however,
had one major disadvantage: If one burned out, it broke the circuit
and the entire set went out. With all the lights out, the owner
had little choice but to find a (hopefully) good spare bulb and
work his way down the set, taking each bulb out and putting the
spare in its place. If he found the bad bulb the set would re-light.
Many an owner, however, went through an entire set without it
coming back on, only to realize that the supposedly "good" spare
bulb was, in fact itself, burned out.
Checking a set by removing
and testing every bulb was difficult, especially if the set was
already on the tree, or even worse, outside on the roof on the
house. For this reason, a number of manufacturers came up with
schemes to address this problem. One solution was to eliminate
the spare bulb for testing with a device the screwed into the
socket and closed the circuit but did not light up. However, this
still required that each bulb be removed until the burned out
one was found.
Another solution was a button
at the base of each light socket that could be pressed to bypass
the bulb. Each button could be pressed in turn until the set lit.
The socket with the button that re-lit the set would contain the
burned out bulb.
Perhaps the most successful
solution was a "shunt" that would automatically close when a bulb
burned out keeping the circuit connected. This allowed the rest
of the set to stay lit. However, because the voltage was now divided
over a smaller number of bulbs, those that remained got a higher
voltage and therefore had a shorter life span. The owner had to
be alert to replace a burned out bulb quickly or the rest of the
set would soon follow.
The manufacture of Christmas
lights virtually stopped during World War II, as many of the materials
to build sets were needed for the war effort instead. Interest
in Christmas lightning came back quickly after the end of the
conflict in the late 40's, however. Manufacturers settled on several
standard bulb types and most of the new sets ran in parallel as
the new bulbs operated cooler even at 110 volts. Several novelty
type lamps were invented, including the bubble light.
Contests for the best decorated
house became popular as increasingly lights were used not just
on the Yule tree, but on the exterior of the family dwelling.
Manufacturers, seeing an additional market to sell into, made
sure that there were weatherproof models in their lighting sets.
lights, first made by NOMA, were very popular in the late
1940's and 1950's.
The bubble light was first
introduced by a manufacturer named NOMA in 1946. The lamp was
styled like a miniature candle holder and candle. The holder was
made of translucent plastic and contained the light bulb. The
candle itself was a hollow tube filled with a chemical that boiled
at low temperature. When the light was switched on it would heat
the base of the tube until the chemical boiled and was converted
to gas. The gas bubbles would then float up the tube to the top
where they would cool enough to change back to liquid so the process
could start all over again.
The bubblers were extremely
popular and NOMA sold thousands and thousands of sets. Competing
companies also picked up the idea and there were few Christmas
trees of that era did not sport at least a few of these animated
In the 1950's the first miniature
lamp sets (sometimes referred to as fairy lamps or twinkle lights)
were sold. These sets were originally produced in Italy, but soon
were manufactured in many other countries including Germany, Holland
and Japan, but never the United States. These sets were wired
in series, using a shunt that closed automatically if a bulb burned
out to keep the rest of the set lit. Because the sets contained
many more bulbs that the earlier serial lamps sets and each bulb
worked at a lower voltage, having one burn out did not quickly
lead to the rest of the set burning out, fixing a major disadvantage
of serial sets.
These imported sets were made
mostly of plastic. Though some early sets had screw-in bases for
the bulbs, a simple plug in arrangement became the standard as
it proved to be cheaper, simpler and just as reliable.
These new miniature lights
were inexpensive and could easily be mass produced. Eventually,
almost all of the once popular screw-in parallel sets were replaced
by serial plug-in miniature lights. Though many people were nostalgic
for the older lights, the new lights allowed a homeowner to get
much more lighting for the same amount of money. This led to larger
and more extreme house Christmas displays than in years past.
display at Wanamakers in Philadelphia first debuted in 1956
and continues even today, though the original store has
gone out of business. (Copyright Wikipedia
Commons and Bruce Anderson).
Because the miniature lights
were so widely produced, manufacturers needed to come up with
variations in the sets that would attract new buyers by giving
them an extra value. An example of these variations included "icicle
lights" designed to hang from the house gutters. Another example
is lighting nets where the bulbs were wired to a light-weight
net making it much easier to cover a bush as compared to doing
the same thing with a regular string.
As electronics became miniaturized,
some sets included the ability to flash with different patterns.
A typical arrangement was a string acting as "chaser" lights that
gave the illusion of the lights running down the string as the
result of the bulbs being turned on and off in the right sequence.
Complex Christmas lighting
displays set to music had been a tradition at some commercial
locations (like the famed Wanamaker show in Philadelphia) for
decades, but with the cost of computers and electronics dropping
the equipment needed to control such as show eventually became
available to enthusiastic homeowners. In 2004 a home Christmas
light show designed by Carson Williams from Mason, Ohio, became
an internet viral video sensation. Williams had used a computer
to control 88 channels of lights making them blink in time to
the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's song Wizards of Winter.
Williams continued his home displays until the traffic congestion
in his neighborhood became a major problem. He discontinued the
show in 2006, but started a business, Consar Lights, which now
does light shows in commercial settings.
William's example, however,
showed people what could be done with a home display. With the
price of a small 16 channel system at only $500 (without lights
or a computer) almost anyone with a desire to could set up such
a show. Interest in these display have been fueled by a new round
of contests similar to those popular in the 1950's
The next revolution in Christmas
Lighting is now underway with LED lights, a spin-off of the computer
revolution, replacing the incandescent bulbs that have been the
mainstay of Christmas lighting since Edison first strung them
up over a century ago. The LED (which stands for Light Emitting
Diode) was invented back in the 1960's. However, early versions
were expensive and could only produce red light. Unlike incandescent
bulbs that produce white light that must be put though a filter
or gel to produce a color, LEDs produce only a single shade of
light. As all computer related silicon based electronic have gotten
cheaper over the years so has the LED. The varieties of colors
they can produce have also gotten wider. The hardest color to
produce turned out to be blue which only became available in the
late 1990's at a price that would allow them to be used on Christmas
Though the LED lights strings
still have a higher initial cost that the incandescent bulbs,
they are cheaper to run and have extremely long lives compared
to traditional lighting sources.
So what will holiday lighting
look like in another hundred years? It is almost impossible to
imagine what people will come up with to illuminate the season
in the next century. We can only predict, that like Christmas
lights always have, they will dazzle their viewers.
Lee Krystek 2009. All Rights Reserved.