Tag Archive | christmas

An Illuminating History of Electric Christmas Lights

courtesy of Wikicommons

courtesy of Wikicommons

Here’s another quick, fascinating bit of Christmas history for you on a Monday morning. I’ll admit, I’m not actually the biggest fan of Christmas (it’s a long story), but I do love tastefully done lights. We all know that the tradition of lights on the Christmas tree began with candles, but did you know that that tradition comes from Germany in the 18th century? But what about electric Christmas lights?

I think a lot of people would assume that the tradition of electric Christmas lights on trees is a relatively new one. In fact, it’s over 100 years old. Well over 100 years old. You might have heard Christmas tree lights referred to as “fairy lights” before. Well, it’s because the concept of a string of tiny electric lightbulbs was first used not at Christmas, but in the first production of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta Iolanthe on November 25th, 1882. (Yay G&S!) The women’s chorus in this operetta are fairies, and their costumes involved strings of electric lights. Well, the name stuck.

That same year (1882!) in America, the vice president of Edison Electric Light Company, Edward H. Johnson, was the first person to wire a Christmas tree with electric lights. A lot of papers reported the electrified tree as a publicity stunt, but—you guessed it—the idea caught on and electric Christmas lights began to steadily grow in popularity. By 1900, stores in big cities were decorating their shop windows with electric lights to draw customers.

Edward H. Johnson's electric Christmas tree lights

Edward H. Johnson’s electric Christmas tree lights

Mind you, the average household couldn’t even begin to afford Christmas lights for their trees. Not until the 1930s. The technology was there, though, and the wealthy and prominent businesses got in on the act from the beginning. That included the White House. The first president to have electric Christmas lights on his tree was Grover Cleveland in 1895. I bet that’s much earlier than you thought lights were around, huh?

As the price of electric lights came down from the 1930s on, they became more prominent in average households. Some of the more famous lights shows that we know today started fairly early too. Those Rockefeller Center lights in NYC? They were first lit in 1956.

Okay, but what about those ridiculous and outlandish displays of Christmas light overkill? You know. Everybody’s neighborhood seems to have someone who’s electric bill for December is double what it is for the rest of the year. You know when that tradition started? In the 1920s. That’s right, it started before indoor Christmas lights became the norm. That’s because in the 1920s General Electric would host contests for the best decorations, and everyone who could wanted to get in on that. (Sometimes I wish they hadn’t. ha!)

So there you go. A quick history of electric Christmas lights. They’re much, much older than most people would expect. So are you a big light decorator or do you like to keep it simple?
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‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

Santa's_ArrivalWell, I have just a small little history snippet for you today. It came about because I wanted to base a little Cold Springs Christmas short story around the classic poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. But since this story takes place in 1904, I wanted to figure out if the poem would have been in common usage by that time.

Guess what? It’s a really old poem! There are a lot of interesting facts around it too. Starting with its origin. Did you know that the poem was first published anonymously in the New York Sentinel in 1823? It was actually written by Clement Clarke Moore, but Moore’s name didn’t appear in print as the author until 1837. The poem was originally sent to the Sentinel by a friend of Moore’s, and it was so well received that it was frequently reprinted after that.

Also, as the legend would have it, although the character of St. Nicholas had been in popular culture in many ways and in many countries for a long time, Moore was the first one to describe Santa with the physical features that we see in the poem. Better still, Moore modeled his St. Nick off of a local Dutch handyman. This all might seem insignificant and fun, but it was Moore’s poem that ended up codifying what Santa looked like from one tradition to another throughout America and later the world. Also, Moore made up the names of the reindeer.

There is also some controversy around who really wrote the poem. While Moore has been credited as the author, there is also a large contingent that claims it was really written by Henry Livingston, Jr.

Personally, I don’t care who actually wrote it, only that it’s such a wonderful part of Christmas and has so many evocative memories associated with it. I remember learning it to recite at a Christmas pageant one year in elementary school. I still remember about half of it verbatim today. I think most of us do, right?

So yes, it was perfectly historically correct to have Michael West read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas aloud to his children and all of the other children of the characters in my Montana Romance series. And if you’d like to read that short story (it’s really funny), pop on over to Facebook and join the Pioneer Hearts group today! If you comment on my post over there, you can also win a $25 Amazon gift card and a signed copy of the first book in my Hot on the Trail series, Trail of Kisses. So what are you waiting for?

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Medieval Monday – Trees and Christmas

Anyone who has dug just a little bit into the history of the traditions of Christmas probably knows that the Christmas tree was made popular in the English-speaking world by Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century.  The British royal family had celebrated the tradition of their German ancestors for several decades before that, but it was the marriage of Victoria to her beloved, Germanic Albert that solidified the tradition.

The Germans did indeed begin the traditions we now associate with the Christmas Tree: decorating it with lights and ornaments, bringing it indoors, dancing around it and celebrating with it.  These Germanic traditions stretch back to the 16th century.

© Loflo69 | Dreamstime.com

© Loflo69 | Dreamstime.com

But trees have not only been associated with Christmas well back into the Middle Ages, they have been an integral part of pagan religion and celebration as far back as anyone can remember.

The tree, particularly the oak tree, was always an important symbol in northern spiritual practice.  It represented eternal life and the cycles that all of nature goes through.  And what better to be an example of the cycle of life than a living thing that goes through a clear transformation from barren branches, to flowering boughs, to full green, vibrant color, and back to barren branches again?  All while dropping seeds that can be seen to sprout into new trees, new life.

Trees have been a part of our spiritual celebrations from the dawn of time.  They were a natural part of winter solstice celebrations.  I know I didn’t immediately make the connection of the burning of the Yule Log, a key element of pagan solstice observance, but when you think about it, duh, it’s a tree.  Out of the ashes of the old, the new is born.  Just as Christmas is a celebration of Jesus, the Light of the World, being born.

Now we’ve all heard that Christmas as we celebrate it now is more or less a pagan celebration Christianized.  True and not true.  Pagan religions already had a winter festival that coincided nicely with the message of Christmas, the return of light to the world, so it was a natural fit to overlap the two.  However, Christmas as it was celebrated in the Middle Ages was a far different holiday than it is now.

First of all, it was longer.  Much longer.  About two weeks.  “Christmas” began at the solstice with the burning of the Yule Log, the original Christmas tree.  In the Viking culture the Yule Log would be kept burning for 12 days, from Christmas to Twelfth Night, aka Epiphany in the Christian world.  Yes, that’s another blending of pagan and Christian traditions.

For the two weeks of this celebration no one would work.  It was a fantastic two week holiday.  However, no one would work because in an agrarian society there was no work.  The celebration was timed the way it was because the harvest was completely gathered and the land was prepared to lay fallow until plowing could begin as the ground softened in the early spring.

This break from work gave people the chance to focus their attention on spiritual things, on the story of Christ, his birth and his life.  Once again, trees enter the story.  Houses were decorated with holly and pine.  These symbols of eternal life harkened back to pagan traditions while also underlining Christian ones.  Medieval mythology had it that holly berries had been white until Jesus’s death.  The blood of His sacrifice was said to have turned the berries red.  So decorating with holly was not just pretty, it was a reminder of the values that made the Middle Ages tick.

© Fultonsphoto | Dreamstime.com

© Fultonsphoto | Dreamstime.com

And while there were no Christmas trees per se in the Middle Ages, trees were decorated.  People would hang apples from trees outside on Christmas Eve to commemorate Adam and Eve.  So if you’ve ever wondered why people decorate Christmas trees with red apples or red balls or wondered why balls in the first place, that’s where the idea came from.  The Vikings also hung shields and other trophies of war on trees at Christmas.

Back to that Viking Yule Log that burned for 12 days.  The end of the Christmas holiday was celebrated on Twelfth Night.  This was regarded as the day that the wise men brought their gifts to the baby Jesus.  As such, this was originally the day that gifts were exchanged.  But the practice of exchanging gifts on Christmas has shifted within the calendar, from Twelfth Night to New Year’s to Christmas and Christmas Eve.  There have also been various periods of history when it was discouraged or frowned on to give gifts at all.

Even though a lot of the traditions of Christmas have changed and morphed or been dropped altogether, trees have always been a part of the celebration.  They remain one of the most beautiful things about Christmas and a symbol that we can all appreciate.