Christmas, Decoration, Lighting, Lotti

The History of Christmas Lights

history of christmas lights

It’s Christmastime: you and your family are gathered in the front room, a log fire gently heating a pan of aromatic roasting chestnuts. Ancient Auntie Annabelle is playing some old tune on a grand piano decked with red, orange and yellow flowers and an indeterminate number of children bound around in their Sunday best, teasing a small dog wearing an oversized blue ribbon.

It’s the perfect picture of festive bliss.

Until, that is, the Christmas tree sets on fire.

One hour, a ruined tree, several disappointed children and some very burnt chestnuts later, the fire has been put out and the soggy remains of what was once a mighty spruce now lie steaming on the rug.

Martin Luther Tree
An engraving from 1860 showing the story of Martin Luther, who was said to have been the first to bring a Christmas tree inside.

Having a Christmas tree in the 1850s was a dangerous business. Illuminated with candles, households with a tree ran the very real danger of it setting alight. The felled evergreen, drying out more and more every day, was perfect kindling. To prevent this, most families would only light their trees for half an hour or so at a time and would ensure that buckets of sand or water were close to hand at all times should the worst happen.

The Christmas tree has been a popular staple of household festivities for hundreds of years, and the illuminated tree was (and still is) an icon of the wintry season. Like trees, candles have played a key role in Christmas and solstice celebrations for just as long. For Christians, the candles represented Jesus Christ as the light of the world and they were particularly popular in early modern Germany. One of the earliest recorded use of candles to celebrate Christmas was in the middle ages where a lit candle represented the star of Bethlehem, shining the way to the baby Jesus. The candle was also an important aspect of advent, starting with German Lutherans who lit Advent wreaths on each Sunday leading to Christmas day. For Pagan communities, a burning candle represented the light of spring during the long winter solstice. Candles are also a key part of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa celebrations.

It made sense, then, to combine the tree and candles for a real Christmas treat. Despite the obvious dangers, people insisted on keeping the tradition alive, leading to a group of insurers in the US refusing to pay for damages caused by Christmas tree fires, stating that policyholders “knew the risks” of having them in their homes. The Christmas tree, complete with lights and garlands, was found all around the world – particularly in the homes of the rich or influential.

Queen Victoria tree
An engraving from the 1840s showing Queen Victoria’s household and their Christmas tree, lit with candles.

In the 1880s, electricity was beginning to make its way into homes and businesses around the UK and the US. With this, came the widespread distribution of electric lights; a safer way to illuminate buildings. In the UK in 1881, the Savoy Theatre was the first building in the world to be lit only using electric lights, and the next year its owner Richard D’Oyly Carte took it one step further by illuminating the principle fairies in that year’s production of the opera Iolanthe. Each fairy sported her own miniature electric light designed by Joseph Swan, the pioneer of the incandescent light bulb, which some claim led to the use of the phrase “fairy lights”.

It wasn’t until the Christmas of 1882 that electric lights made their way onto the Christmas tree. They were introduced by Edward Hibberd Johnson, a partner of Thomas Edison who had demonstrated his electrical light’s power two years previously in an impressive outdoor Christmas display. Johnson hand-wired 80 red, white and blue lights (which were described as being around the same size as an “English walnut”) which he strung around his own Christmas tree that he displayed in his Fifth Avenue home. His tree was even mounted on a rotating pinebox, spinning around to show off Johnson’s innovative idea. At first, the lights were seen as little more than a publicity stunt, until a reporter from Detroit picked up the story and Johnson was flung into the limelight.

Edward Hibberd Johnson’s illuminated Christmas tree
Edward Hibberd Johnson’s illuminated Christmas tree.

While electric tree lights had suddenly burst onto the scene, they were still far too expensive for the average homeowner. The miniature lights needed to be wired individually by hand, and so would often need professional electricians to install. This could cost up to $300 per tree – that’s around $9000 today! The first electrically illuminated Christmas tree made its way into the White House in 1895 with President Grover Cleveland, whose tree had over 100 multi-coloured lights. The first commercially available string lights were manufactured by General Electric in 1903, but at $12 for three festoons (with a grand total of 24 bulbs) it was too much for most shoppers.

The cost of Christmas lights wasn’t the only thing preventing them from being embraced by typical consumers. By 1925 only half of homes in America were powered by electricity and while the first stages of the National Grid were opened in the UK in 1930 only 1 in 3 houses had electricity by 1933. The expense, relative scarcity and lingering mistrust of electricity meant that it wasn’t feasible for families to replace dangerous wax candles with strings of electric bulbs.

An advert for electric Christmas lights from General Electric published 1901
An advert for electric Christmas lights from General Electric published 1901

While General Electric introduced the first string lights to the market, it was a teenager named Albert Sadacca in 1917 who really popularised them. The story goes that after a devastating house fire caused by candles hung on a tree in New York, Albert (aged only 15) repurposed the novelty lighting that his parents sold to be used on Christmas trees, swapping out the white bulbs for brightly coloured ones. His family’s company was just one of fifteen selling Christmas lights, and in 1925 they formed the NOMA Electric Company, which quickly became the largest manufacturer of Christmas lights.

As Christmas lights became more popular, manufacturers began to experiment more with different colours and shapes, pathing the way for novelty Christmas lighting. Bulbs shaped like popular figures, flowers and fruit were also sold alongside “matchless stars”, which were common during the Great Depression. Now-iconic bubble lights were particularly popular in the 1940s after WW2, which contained (an often carcinogenic) liquid that boiled and bubbled at a low temperature to create a flickering effect.

vintage christmas ads
Left: 1950 advert for NOMA bubble lights. Top Right: 1904 advert for General Electric. Bottom Right: 1949 advert for General Electric.

Today, Christmas lights (and fairy lights of all kinds) come in hundreds of different shapes and sizes, and thanks to improvements in waterproofing can be hung all over your house as well as your tree. You can string miniature Rudolfs from your fireplace and deck your halls with giant LED snowmen. Traditional filament or wired bulbs have been replaced with LEDs, which are safer, longer lasting and more energy efficient. If string lights aren’t your thing, you can even get laser projectors! Check out our range of garden lighting to see if you can add some extra twinkle to your garden this year.

Jenny at PrimroseLotti works with the Primrose Product Loading team, creating product descriptions and newsletter headers.

When not writing, Lotti enjoys watching (and over-analyzing) indie movies with a pint from the local craft brewery or cosplaying at London Comic Con.

Lotti is learning to roller skate, with limited success.

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