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Christmas Lights- A Brief History

We are fast approaching the time of year where we put up Christmas lights. And what a joyous occasion it shall be. First, we have to get through Halloween, and most people agree that Christmas lights should wait until after Remembrance Day, but after the 11th we Canadians can look forward to a bright, multicoloured future.



And yet, there is a question that has alluded a lot of people, not just Canadians. Why are Christmas lights a thing? Sure, they are beautiful and brightly coloured and bring joy to all those around us, but what is the origin of these gorgeous additions to any house? Why is it that say someone from Stouffville, Ontario puts up Christmas lights in a similar fashion to how someone from London, England may do it? Well, today we will dive into the interesting history of Christmas lighting, and perhaps also look into the different ways one may have put up Christmas lights in the past.


Where did the practice of putting up Christmas Lights begin?


For the answer to this question, we have to go back all the way to the 17th century. Scholars and historians say that Christmas lights actually began as candles. It may seem silly for a modern day Christmas light owner to put candles all around a, say, very flammable Christmas tree but that’s actually what they did!


They put the candles around the tree in order to brighten up the ornaments that also adorned their nice Christmas tree. It was a time before electricity was really widespread, so this was the best they could do. And get this- they didn’t even use candleholders to keep them on the tree until about the 1900s. They just used wax or pins to keep the candles on the tree, which is about as insane as it sounds.

Then came 1915, where glass balls and lanterns started to surround the average Christmas tree. These early versions of Christmas lights weren’t the only things being used, as after the invention of the lightbulb the first Christmas tree was illuminated with lights around 1882. It was actually in New York where this first Christmas lighted tree was found, a place where one can find some of the most beautiful and bright Christmas trees, thus by proxy Christmas lights, to this day.




This original Christmas tree was lit up by one Edward Johnson, who just happened to be a friend of a little known inventor by the name of Thomas Edison. The tree was adorned with Christmas lights of blue, red and white. Sound familiar? It should, because those are the colours those who put up Christmas lights see and prefer to this day.


This moment was also the first time a string of Christmas lights was used on a Christmas tree. In the year 1890, these strings of Christmas lights were first massed produced and sold to the public so that everyone could have a beautiful, brilliant tree filled to the brim with their own Christmas lights. Five years later, the first White House Christmas tree had their own Christmas lights, and president Grover Cleveland was the man who did the honour of lighting up those beauties.


However, much to the dismay of the public, a lot of these stringed Christmas lights were too expensive for the average person to afford. Back in those days a set of Christmas lights could run a family approximately 12$, which in today’s money would be about 80$! So what were these early Christmas lights used for? Well, they were often used to liven up displays in stores, as businesses could easily afford these pricey Christmas lights.

It fell upon General Electric to make the first set of affordable Christmas lights. These came in the colours we often associate with Christmas lights today, namely clear, green, frosted, blue, purple, opal and ruby. But then, a dreaded fire in 1917 caused the Christmas light selling businesses to rethink the design of these beautiful decorations. It fell upon a man named Albert Sadacca, who invented the “safe” Christmas light.


This was the beginning of the Christmas light itself. Yet, one may wonder where the practice of putting ones Christmas lights outside their house started. Surely it is an ancient tradition dating back to those Germans putting candles on their trees… right? Well, one may be surprised to know that the tradition of putting Christmas lights outside on a home started in North America! It was 1927 where the first outdoor safe Christmas light was created, and it obviously caught on and became a worldwide phenomenon, because Christmas lights are such a beautiful and stunning display that they need to be seen by the world.


Then there were the bubble lights, which came into popularity around world war 2. These lights had a chemical inside of them that wouldn’t just light up, but would also make a pleasant tinkling sound when they were turned on. These Christmas lights were so popular that they stayed in the zeitgeist till about the 1970s.




Of course, there are also the novelty lights that have slipped their way into our collective culture. The ones shaped like snowmen, there are ones shaped like icicles, and while they may not be used as frequently as the rounded bulbs we usually see today, they are still an important part of the history of Christmas lights and they play a big part in our memories.

Nowadays however we see different kinds of lights. They are mostly LED, made of plastic, and generally fairly cheap and affordable. There has even become a practice for those who are more savvy with their time, and this practice involves a professional company coming and doing their Christmas lights for them. These lighting companies can be found anywhere, from Stouffville to Victoria. They are an institution of our culture, just like the Christmas lights themselves.


And so, this guide to this history of Christmas lights has come to an end. We learned all about Christmas lights’ humble beginnings, we learned all about the different types of Christmas lights that have been put up over the years and finally, we learned that companies will actually put up Christmas lights for homeowners should they ever so desire. And now, there is one thing left to say- happy holidays and enjoy those Christmas lights!

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