O' Christmas Tree
No Christmas tree is complete without a set of twinkling lights. An estimated 150 million light sets are sold each year, and in the U.S. alone they consume approximately 6% of the electrical load every December. But before we get to the lights, we’ve gotta start with the tree itself. Why the heck do we bring a tree inside our homes every winter and decorate it?
The symbolic use of evergreens - plants and trees which remain green all year long - dates back to ancient Egyptian and Roman civilizations. The sun was often viewed as a god in these cultures, and they believed that winter came every year because the sun god was sick and growing weak. The Winter Solstice marks the longest and darkest day of the year, but is also a crucial turning point - it was widely celebrated as a sign that the sun god was beginning to get better. Evergreens were a reminder that green plants would return, grow again, and that summer was on its way.
The basic concept was the same but each ancient civilization marked the occasion in their own way. Egyptians would fill their homes with green palm rushes in celebration of their god, Ra, to symbolize life. Romans decorated their homes in evergreen boughs during Saturnalia, their solstice feast, to celebrate a god of the same name (Saturn) who ruled over agriculture. Druids (Celtic priests) would use evergreens to decorate their temples as a symbol of eternal life. And the Vikings regarded evergreens as the plant of their sun god, Balder.
The Germans are often credited with being the pioneers of bringing a tree inside during Christmas. In the 16th century devout Christians in Germany popularized the practice and some began decorating their trees - while others built Christmas pyramids made of wood and decorated them with evergreen boughs. In England, Illustrated London News ran an article in 1848 showing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert gathered with their family around a lighted Christmas tree, which quickly popularized the practice throughout the country. Those who had the means to do so began adding light to their trees using candles.
While beautiful, this posed a serious fire hazard and many kept buckets of sand or water nearby for when the drying needles inevitably caught flame. Inventors tried to make them safer by introducing clip-on candle holsters, featuring a base that caught the hot dripping wax. But it wasn’t until an ah-ha! moment in the 1880’s that electric lights joined the party.
Thomas Edison created the first commercially practical incandescent light and bulb in 1879. While Edison was a brilliant inventor (over his lifetime he acquired over 1,093 patents), he wasn’t much of a businessman. Enter Edward Johnson, Edison’s friend and business partner who found ways to commercialize a number of his inventions including - you guessed it - Christmas lights.
In 1882, Johnson had the idea to take Edison’s bulbs and string them together. He set up a Christmas tree in a street-facing window of their shop and strung 80 hand-wired red, white and blue bulbs around it. The tree was then placed on a revolving pedestal powered by a generator. He invited the press to cover the spectacle and it drew quite the crowd. W.A. Croffut of the Detroit Post and Tribune wrote of the affair, "It was brilliantly lighted with... eighty lights all encased in these dainty glass eggs, and about equally divided between white, red and blue.... One can hardly imagine anything prettier.”
While Johnson continued the tradition, adding more lights year over year, and selling the strands - it wasn’t an overnight success. Americans were still wary of electricity and the product was crazy expensive. A single strand of 16 bulbs would have set you back about $12, roughly $350 today.
In 1903, General Electric began selling pre-assembled kits of Christmas lights and by 1914 a 16-foot string was down to a more reasonable price of $1.75/package.
Image by Sebastian on Unsplash