Thomas Edison was known for his wacky publicity stunts, but during the Christmas of 1880 he went for the sentimental rather than shock value. That year, instead of electrocuting an elephant, he brought us the first electric Christmas light display.
By the time 1880 rolled around, Edison had his incandescent light bulbs pretty well figured out, and was on the lookout for a way to advertise them. To display his invention as a means of heightening Yuletide excitement, he strung up incandescent bulbs all around his Menlo Park laboratory compound, so that passing commuters on the nearby railway could see the Christmas miracle. But Edison being Edison, he decided to make the challenge a little tricker by powering the lights from a remote generator eight miles away.
Two years later, an Edison crony named Edward Johnson displayed the first electrically illuminated Christmas tree at his home in Manhattan. The then-impressive 80-light display girded a very unimpressive Charlie Brown Christmas tree (I mean really, look at that thing). And as you might expect, Johnson’s feat was also intended as an advertising tool.
The tradition of stringing electric lights may have started as a Christmas thing in America, but now it’s a global phenomenon used for all kinds winter festivuses (festivi?). It’s a practice we take for granted—come December, they’re everywhere. The evolution of the Christmas light parallels that of the light bulb, with some remarkably ornate—OK, tacky—variations. But regardless of how they look, one thing’s for certain: They’re a much better option than sticking a candle in a tree.
In the Beginning, There was Fire
Today we look at Christmas lights and think “Oh, those are pretty.” But the tradition of lighting lights in the winter months didn’t start off with aesthetics in mind. December is the darkest month of the year with the shortest days. People living without central heating in the 12th century were understandably unhappy when the sun went down and plunged them into the cold depths of night. Way back during the winter of 1184 was the first recorded lighting of the Yule Log [PDF] in Germany. The burning log was seen as a symbol of the sun’s promise to return. It probably didn’t hurt that a big burning hunk of wood makes for a pretty good heat source.
The Christmas tree has a whole story behind it that we won’t get into here. (Fun Fact: they were originally hung upside down from the ceiling—hilarious!) Long story short, Christians had lights, they had trees, and in the 17th century, they decided to put the two together.
Unfortunately, the only way to add Christmas lights to a tree back then was with candles. Obviously, this was a pretty bad idea. So bad that, unlike today, the tree would only be put up a few days before Christmas [PDF] and was promptly taken down afterwards. The candles would remain lit only for a few minutes per night, and even then families would sit around the tree and watch it vigilantly, buckets of sand and water nearby. It’s kind of like the old-timey equivalent of deep-frying a turkey: People knew it could burn their house down, but proceeded to do it anyway.
By 1908, insurance companies wouldn’t even pay for damages [PDF] caused by Christmas tree fires. Their exhaustive research demonstrated that burning wax candles that were loosely secured to a dried-out tree inside your house wasn’t safe. At all. Electric Christmas lights were becoming a viable option for some Americans. They weren’t perfect—incandescent bulbs can get plenty hot, and sparks from malfunctioning strings can still light up a dry tree—but it was a much safer option than lighting multiple fires so close to their favorite fuel.
Keep in mind that by “some Americans,” I mean the extremely rich. In 1900, a single string of electric lights cost $12 [PDF]—around $300 in today’s money. It would take the magic of mass manufacturing to create the Clark Griswold-esque neighborhood light displays would become an American tradition.