Did you know that the USA is responsible for giving us one of the most beautiful and most enjoyed aspects of Christmas in the Western World? There's not a soul in the world, who can honestly look at electric Christmas lights and not think they're at least pretty. For most of us Christmas lights are practically mesmerizing, and few are the houses in the USA who don't boast their beauty from Thanksgiving to New Years. The history of Christmas lights traces back to the mid 1800's and Thomas Edison's fascination with electricity.
The History of Electricity
We like to remember Thomas Edison as the person who invented the light bulb, when in fact the glass bulb had been invented by Heinrich Geissler, a German glassblower, in 1856.
However, in 1879, Thomas Edison did invented the first incandescent light bulb that was practical for commercial production. Others had made light bulbs, but those bulbs either burned out very quickly, were expensive to produce, or used too much electricity. Edison’s bulb made it possible for people to use electricity to light their homes. However, it used DC (direct current), which could only be transmitted for short distances.
In 1882, Thomas Edison developed the first economically practical system for generating electricity and distributing it to homes and businesses. He opened the first power station, in Lower Manhattan, New York City, and opened a system of electric lighting using overhead wires, in Roselle, New Jersey. (source)
The History of Electric Christmas Lights
Edward Johnson, an associate of Thomas Edison first employed the use of electric lights on a Christmas tree in 1882. Johnson's home was located in one of the first sections of New York City to be wired for electricity, and reportedly this was the first instance in history where someone electrically light a Christmas tree.
A reporter is said to have described the event this way in The Detroit Post and Tribune:
Last evening I walked over beyond Fifth Avenue and called at the residence of Edward H. Johnson, vice-president of Edison’s electric company. There, at the rear of the beautiful parlors, was a large Christmas tree presenting a most picturesque and uncanny aspect. It was brilliantly lighted with many colored globes about as large as an English walnut and was turning some six times a minute on a little pine box. There were eighty lights in all, encased in dainty glass eggs, and equally divided between white, red and blue. As the tree turned and the colors alternated, all the lamps going out and being relit at every revolution. The result was a continuous twinkling of dancing colors, red, white, blue, white, red, blue—all evening.
In 1890, Edison published a promotional brochure which may have been the first mention of commercially available electric Christmas lights. It stated
There are few forms of decoration more beautiful and pleasing than miniature incandescent lamps placed among flowers, or interwoven in garlands or festoons; for decorating Christmas trees or conservatories…
From there, the popularity of Christmas lights exploded. Before long, every family had them and they have since become synonymous with the Christmas tree, and used the world over. Though in recent history, they are not limited to the tree. People now use them to decorate gates and gardens, rooftops, yard ornaments and even cars! It is hard to imagine Christmas without Christmas lights!
Do you suppose we like them so much because it reminds us that Jesus came to earth at Christmas to be the Light of the World?
What is your favorite thing to do with Christmas lights each year?
- Where to buy Christmas Lights
- When did the White House first have electric Christmas lights?
- 50 Best USA Christmas Light Displays
- 10 Ten places in the world to see Christmas Lights. Do you live in one of them?
- Free Printable Christmas Lights Scavenger Hunt
- Watch a video of 4 families competing for “Best Christmas Lights” award
- Instructions for making a Sparkle Ball with plastic cups and Christmas Lights
- Print and make a mini-book about Christmas in the USA
- Google “Christmas lights” and look at the “images” results (with adult supervision)
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