Christmas is incomplete without the colorful and illuminating display of lights. Today, Christmas lights are festooned on Christmas trees, windowsills, terraces, trees on streets, on the main entrance door of the house and candles are placed at various locations in and outside the house.
It is interesting to know that Christmas lights usually deemed as an item of decoration has an interesting story behind it with an origin and history dating back to the Pagans and Pre-Christian era.
Origin and History The rituals of Christmas lights and evergreens predate Christianity. The essential significance behind it is ‘bringing life (or light) in the cold, dead winter.’ The Christians adopted this ritual along with the Pagan Yule Log and brought evergreens into their homes. The next adoption by the Christians was that of the Christmas lights.
Legend has it that Martin Luther upon seeing a brightly lit Christmas Eve sky lit the first tree. However, a documented reference to a lit tree appears only in 1660. The lights first became popular with the use of candles to decorate the Christmas tree by the elite class homes in the 18th century Germany.
The Christmas tree and along with it the tradition of lights came to United States in the beginning of the 19th century with the German speaking Moravian (residing in Pennsylvania and North Carolina). They would decorate a Christmas tree every year which caught the attention of Americans. In 1832, a Harvard professor named Charles Follen decorated the first Christmas tree with candles. The inspiration soon spread all over and got incorporated in the American Christmas tradition.
However, when it came to the candles, there were a few challenges. The candles had to be glued to the molten wax on the tree. This posed a number of problems and a lot of precautions needed to be taken. People would keep buckets of water ready in case the tree caught fire. Moreover, the candles would burn out quickly and therefore were found to be very expensive.
The credit to popularize the first string of Christmas lights is granted to Edward Johnson, who was working under Thomas Edison. In 1882, he lit up a Christmas tree at his home in Manhattan in the city of New York with 80 small electric light bulbs. These strings of electric Christmas lights instantly caught on and began to be mass produced by 1890.
Thus there was a gradual progress from candles to electric lights. However, candles continued to be used in many homes. Electric Christmas lights were used by department stores and at other public places by 1900. In the early 20th century, Christmas trees were decorated and illuminated with electric lights and displayed publicly. By mid 20th century, festoons of lights were to be found not only on the Christmas trees but also on windowsills and along streets and buildings. It became commonplace for families to decorate their Christmas trees at home with lights and face them towards the windows.
A tragic fire involving Christmas tree candles in New York City inspired the fifteen year old Albert Sadacca in 1917 to come up with safe Christmas lights for Christmas trees. In the first year, only about a hundred strings of white lights got sold. However, the following year, Albert added bright and colorful bulbs and a million dollar business took off which led to the establishment of the company called NOMA Electric Company. This company went ahead to become the largest Christmas lighting company in the world.
Though the tradition of putting up electric Christmas lights started in America, it soon became a worldwide phenomenon.
SignificanceThere has been a lot of emphasis to uphold the original meaning of the traditions behind the Christmas lights. There are various seasonal attributes to the traditions of the festival which do not have a direct relationship with Jesus. Winters have short days and a cold weather. Therefore, light helps to ‘conquer darkness’ during the short days of brightness of the season. Alternatively, it also stands as a metaphor for illuminating the soul, bringing light into one’s life. It also stands for feelings of warmth and belongingness.
The main reason to place lights is to hail the spirit of Christmas. The blue and white lights go with the mood of the winter season as well. The colored lights which have become increasingly famous set the mood for a party or celebration.