Each year, millions of people decorate their homes and Christmas trees with string lights. They are beautiful, twinkling in a neighbor’s window and illuminating roofs and outside shrubbery, but have you ever wondered why that is. Why are Christmas lights a holiday staple, and where did they come from?
The history of the Christmas lights is an interesting story that leads back to Thomas Edison. Yes, that Thomas Edison.
Prior to Edison’s invention of the light bulb, those who could afford to would decorate their Christmas tree with candles.
In an interview with TIME, John Hanssen, a collector of Christmas-related antiques and member of the Golden Glow of Christmas Past, an international organization for Christmas history, said the candles were meant to “signify the light of Jesus.”
It is widely thought that the Protestant reformer Martin Luther was the first to add a lit candle to a Christmas tree around 1525.
“Generally, the tree was set up in the parlor and when all the family would come down to see the tree, dad or grandpa would light up all the candles. You’d look at it for a few seconds and blow them out.”
Unfortunately, as one can imagine, the Christmas candles caused numerous house fires due to the highly flammable resin on Christmas trees.
Around 1880, just as Edison had secured his patent for the incandescent light bulb, he decided to illuminate the outside of his Menlo Park laboratory with his new invention.
It is said that the American inventor did this for two reasons. One was to get his New York community in the holiday spirit and the second was to introduce his invention to the masses.
Everyone was amazed by the display, so much so that Edison’s associate, Edward Johnson, saw the opportunity for the lightbulb to expand.
Johnson’s idea was to replace the candles with a string of colored electric lights. He did this with bulky, pear-shaped bulbs on a single wire.
Several publications covered Johnson’s lighting of the first tree, which rotated with 80 red, white and blue lights.
“At the rear of the beautiful parlors, was a large Christmas tree presenting a most picturesque and uncany aspect,” wrote W.A. Croffut, a veteran writer for the Detriot Post and Tribune. “It was brilliantly lighted with…eighty lights in all encased in these dainty glass eggs, and about equally divided between white, red and blue…One can hardly imagine anything prettier.”
While the lights were a spectacle, they didn’t gain the trust of the American people because the bulbs were too expensive to be practical.
A string of 16 vaguely flame-shaped bulbs sitting in brass sockets the size of shot glasses sold for a pricey $12 in 1900, which is about $350 in today’s dollars.
The public finally caught on to the idea when the lights became reasonably priced. By 1914, a 16-foot string of lights was priced at $1.75, and by the 1930s, colored bulbs were decorating everyone’s homes at Christmastime.
It is estimated that, today, 150 lights set are sold in American every year, lighting more than 80 million homes and consuming six percent of the nation’s electrical load in December, all because of Johnson’s idea.