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Christmas lights: a brief history

The Thanksgiving turkey leftovers are ancient history, replaced by the holiday lights we take for granted this time of year as much as candy canes, cold nights and heavy mall traffic. But the twinkling lights that decorate Fraser firs, lampposts and storefronts at Christmastime haven’t always looked this way – and their evolution is intertwined with the history of light.

Long before big-box stores dedicated entire sections to strings of Christmas lights in every color of the rainbow, families balanced real candles in the branches of the trees they brought into their homes and lit them with real fire. The result was a beautiful but extremely dangerous fire hazard, especially as the uprooted evergreens dried out over the course of the holiday season, and many tree-lighting efforts sparked house fires.

Edward H. Johnson introduced a solution when he strung together the first electric Christmas lights in 1882. Johnson, an associate of Thomas Edison, hand-wired 80 red, white and blue bulbs to create a decidedly patriotic display on his tree, which also rotated.

Eight years later, electric lights were mass-produced and sold in stores. But they weren’t for the shallow-pocketed. In fact, the average cost to light a Christmas tree with electric lights was about $2,000 in today’s dollars. The first known advertisement for Christmas tree lights even suggested individuals rent the lights. As a result, the colorful, festive displays remained limited to retail stores, government buildings and outdoor displays until several decades later.

In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge kicked off the nation’s celebration of the holiday by illuminating the 48-foot National Christmas Tree with 3,000 electric lights on the Ellipse, within walking distance of the White House.

That tree and many that followed were adorned with thousands of incandescent bulbs. In fact, strings of incandescent lights decorated trees in private homes and public spaces throughout the 20th century and still prevail today, the technology largely unchanged. But another, newer light source has burst onto the holiday party scene.

In 2007, LED lights were used on the National Christmas Tree for the first time, making the towering evergreen more energy-efficient than ever. The following year, the entire display was fueled almost solely by LEDs, making it 50 percent more efficient than the 2007 display.

In general, most Christmas lights are still incandescent – the lower-cost, traditional option. But LEDs offer energy efficiency, the gift that keeps on giving, and thus are becoming more popular.

Regardless of the source, we’re still moved to light our trees, neighborhood streets and downtown districts with vivid tributes to the holiday season. That’s unlikely to change, even as the lighting industry continues to evolve by leaps and bounds.


Sources: GizmodoNational Park FoundationThe Library of Congress