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.
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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