Christmas Lights

The first Christmas lights appeared in 1882, and would forever change the scenery at Christmas time.

Christmas lights were initially available only to the wealthy. But the price fell eventually, and several innovations were introduced.

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Episode transcript

Brian Earl 0:07
Legend has it that Martin Luther was the first person to place lit candles on a Christmas tree. He was inspired. The story goes by the image of the stars glowing brightly on the first Christmas Eve, and he wanted to recreate that effect on the Christmas tree, which was a decoration that originated in his native Germany. As nice a story as it is, it’s almost certainly not true. The earliest references to lights on Christmas trees date back to about a century after Martin Luther his time. But let’s pause for a moment to consider that at some point in history, someone thought it would be a good idea to put lit candles on a tree. Not only that, but also that the idea caught on. I’d say the idea of spread like wildfire, but that’s just a little too close to the actual truth. Having lit candles on your Christmas tree is a problem in more ways than one. In the first place, how do you attach them to the tree. Originally, people would melt a bit of candle wax onto a branch and then stick the bottom of a candle stick into the wax and let it act as a kind of adhesive. But this wasn’t foolproof. Of course, if you could get the candles to stay upright in the first place, the wax wouldn’t always hold and they’d fall off. So along the way people innovated. Some would use a pin to pierce through the candlestick and into the branch to hold it in place. This worked okay, but it didn’t stop some enterprising folks from coming up with further innovations. In the early 1800s. someone invented long rods but attached to the tree’s trunk and extended outward. At the end of the rod was a small clip for holding a candle steady. Later that century candle holders that clipped onto the branches hit the market. But there were still major problems, like the fact that the candles tripped wax onto the tree and whatever was beneath it. And then there was the most obvious problem of all, you had lit candles on a tree that was indoors. You couldn’t keep it lit for more than a half hour at a time. And it needed constant supervision. People would even keep buckets of sand and water nearby in case of emergency. But even that wasn’t always enough. Christmas tree fires were so common that some insurance companies refused to cover them. But all of that was about to change in 1882 with the invention of what would forever change the face of Christmas trees, and then eventually houses and hedges and displays in the center of town and make Christmas brighter and more colorful and thankfully safer for all of us. I’m Brian Earl, this is Christmas past.

In order to have the electric Christmas light, you must first half electricity. electrification of homes began in the 1880s. So it’s amazing to think that the electric Christmas light was introduced in 1882. It was really among the first practical applications of electric light. And the honor of the first electrically lit Christmas tree goes to Edward Johnson, who worked for Thomas Edison’s electric light company. The tree was in his New York City Living room were still a little ways off from strings of Christmas lights available to average consumers. Johnson’s house was one of the few in new york city that had been wired for electricity. In the light bulbs, all 80 of them had been specially made just for him and hand wired individually. Johnson’s Christmas lights caught people’s attention, and other people wanted them though, for the first 20 years or so they were mainly a luxury item for the very well off, and one of them included our 22nd and 24th. President Grover Cleveland, he served two terms, you know, not consecutive. And during that second term in 1895, he sponsored the first electrically lit Christmas tree in the White House. It had a whopping 100 lights on it, and that was a big deal at the time. In the meantime, because old traditions Die Hard and also because Christmas lights were just out of reach for most people. candles on trees continued to be a custom and a lot of households. But in 1903, General Electric offered the first pre wired string of Christmas lights for sale. The strings held just eight lights. Eight, you can buy strings of 500 nowadays for 20 or 30 bucks. But in 1903 eight lights cost around $12 which was just a little less than the average weekly income for many households. Despite the cost they gradually caught on. And by the 1930s the electric Christmas light finally replaced the candle on Christmas trees in most homes. And once again, people were inspired to innovate. The first lights were either round or pear shaped, but some European makers produced figural lights in the shape of Santa Claus or animals and other things. And then in 1936, an accountant for the Montgomery Ward department store, a man named Carl Otis came up with a new kind of Christmas light that added an effervescent glow to the Christmas tree, the bubble light. These are lights attached to glass tubes filled with a liquid chemical, and the liquid bubbles when the lights warm up. I grew up with bubble lights on my Christmas tree at home. And I remember staring mesmerized as the light glowed and fizzed endlessly. I wanted to know more about bubble lights. So I talked to George Johnson, author of the book Christmas lights, ornaments and decorations.

George Johnson 5:47
They started right before World War Two in terms of an invention, but it was in the late 40s. And and to the 50s that they became the phenomena that they were

Brian Earl 6:00
and though Carl Otis was the inventor, he lost the copyright to produce them, bad for him but good for Christmas trees because other companies would put them out and continue to innovate.

George Johnson 6:11
Quite a few companies put a put them out. They distinguished by the plastic base that the light was housed down the lamp was housed in. And they also distinguish it by the bubble patterns that the bubbles made. Some of them had a very large bubble, which had a glass slug in the bottom of the tube, or a chemical crystal that helped with the bubbling. Those appeared to be very popular at the time, because the bubble was very big. It was almost like a glug, glug, glug. And the large bubble went up and they were very easy to see inside the glass tubes. The rarest of the bubble lights was one called a shooting star. It had a mixture of two different types of chemicals. And essentially the bubble was shot up from the bottom to the top of the tube and then cascaded down and smaller things. Almost like a firework.

Brian Earl 7:10
Just like their predecessors bubble lights too originally came in strings of eight or nine. And most sets still on the market today contain only about that many. And as sensational as they were, trends come and go and this one just wasn’t meant to last.

George Johnson 7:26
By the 60s they were gone. Because people had aluminum trees with a color wheel and no lights on their tree. The color wheel itself provided the light to sparkle that the lights and the different colors of the ornaments themselves on the tree would have provided.

Brian Earl 7:40
Of course they didn’t die off completely. But thank goodness the aluminum Christmas tree did more or less anyway. But like I said, I had bubble lights on my tree growing up in the 70s and 80s. And you can still find them today mainly online. Of course Christmas lights, all kinds have found their way off the Christmas tree and onto mantle’s windows, and of course the outside of homes. Now you can always count me in for a festively lit Christmas house. And maybe I’m a little old school, but I prefer those large, multicolored strings of lights. But let’s remember with great Christmas spirit comes great responsibility. Some of these house displays get a little out of hand. There’s even a TV show called The Great Christmas light fight which shows just how extreme this stuff can get. Me I enjoy a tasteful, understated light display, just enough to make the season literally merry and bright.

Now growing up in my home, my mom would deck out the entire house. But there was that one room, the living room for us that was most festive of all with the Christmas tree and the mantel display. I’m guessing it was like that for most people like Tim in California.

Tim in California 8:53
Alright, so this Christmas story is technically not mine. It’s one that gets told to me by my mom. See, the first couple years in my life. I lived in a house with my parents and it had the family room which had the TV and that’s where I spent a lot of my time playing. And then the living room, which is where the fireplace was and of course come Christmas time. That’s where we’d hang the stockings. And since the stockings were in there, that’s where we put the Christmas tree and we put the presence under there. So of course Christmas morning. That’s the room where we kick off the celebration of Christmas. And then one year I couldn’t have been I don’t know, three, four, maybe two, I think three or four. My mom it was before the season of Christmas. It actually started but it was getting it was getting there. My mom said Tim, do you know what Christmas is? And my eyes lit up. And I ran into the living room and I pointed I was like it’s this room. Because apparently I was spent so little time in there. I thought the only thing that we did in there was Christmas and so that room was Christmas. My mom eventually gave me the Linus speech so I knew what Christmas was all about. But for a while. I thought Christmas was just a room in my house. Now I realized Christmas has a room in my heart. All right, it started sincere and too cheesy. I’m gonna stop talking

Brian Earl 9:59
Tim is the host of the podcast can’t wait for Christmas, check it out wherever you get podcasts. And after you’re done with that, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to Christmas Past Tell me what you love about Christmas. A favorite memory, a funny story, anything you want to share? I’d love to hear it and so would everyone else. Don’t be shy. Christmas past is produced in sunny San Mateo, California by yours truly, Brian Earl. Thank you very much to George Johnson and Tim Babb. Follow along on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram just search for Christmas Past podcast. You can find show notes and more information about the show at Christmas Past And please make sure that you subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. And as always, if you like what you hear, I would love it if you could tell a friend or leave a rating and review on iTunes. Those things help the show a lot. Thanks very much for listening and I will see you next time.