From candles to LED bulbs: A brief history of Christmas lights

Few things evoke a feeling of Christmas as much as dazzling lights. Traditional or solar, mini or LED, multi-colored or white, these holiday must-haves come from a tradition of lighting candles.

In the beginning, aesthetics had nothing to do with the tradition of lighting lights. Since there was no central heating to make the long winter nights more bearable, people adopted a German ritual of bringing evergreen trees into their homes and burning logs as a symbol of the sun’s promise to return.

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This is how it all began. 

The tradition of lighting the tree with small candles spread from Germany to Eastern Europe in the 17th century. Wishing to make the winter festive, people would attach candles to the branches using needles, wire, strings, and melted wax, until a breakthrough came in the form of a clip-on candle holder.

Since the wonderfully decorated Christmas tree in the living room was also an easily flammable one, people would keep the candles lit only for short periods, with a bucket of sand or water nearby. However, the number of tragic stories in the newspapers about fire accidents during the holiday season remained considerable, and a number of insurance companies refused to provide protection against fires caused by Christmas trees.

Electric candle-shaped lights. Author: 4028mdk09 CC BY 3.0

The fire hazard led to an interest in developing an alternative version of Christmas candles. In 1880, Thomas Edison used electric lights to decorate his laboratory compound, which would become the first known outdoor electric Christmas lights display.

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The first string of fairy lights would be invented only a couple of years later, in 1882, by Edison’s employee, Edward H. Johnson. The display of eighty, specially-made, red, white, and blue bulbs girding the Christmas tree in the window of his Fifth Avenue home soon earned him the title Father of the Electric Christmas Tree and made the Christmas season safer, brighter, and happier.

A dazzling Christmas tree at the turn of the twentieth century.

Christmas lights have been mass produced since 1890, becoming popular in Europe and in the USA, even making their debut at the White House on the 1895 Christmas tree. However, due to the limited availability of electricity and the cost of the wiring itself, they seemed to be reserved only for the wealthy.

In 1903, the General Electric Company offered the first pre-wired string of tree lights called a “festoon”, but it wasn’t until 1917 when the teenager Albert Sadacca convinced his parents to repurpose the white novelty lights they produced that candles were finally boxed up and placed on a shelf for good.

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In 1925, Albert and his brothers organized the National Outfit Manufacturers Association (NOMA), which would become the largest manufacturer and distributor of holiday lighting in the world. They did well through the Depression years and the Second World War by manufacturing wooden toys, fireworks, and bombs, but did not survive the increasing competition from cheaper Christmas light sets, imported primarily from Italy and Japan, and went bankrupt by the mid-1960s.

The myriad of novelties that flooded the market in the following years allowed Christmas lights to become the popular tradition it is in the present day. From their use in classic movie scenes to real-life Candy Cane Lanes, Christmas lights are a holiday favorite for many families.