The History of Electric Christmas Lights

For hundreds of years Candles or oil lamps were the main light sources when it was dark, and during the celebration of Christmas. They were also the first lights put on Christmas Trees. But that changed with the discovery of electricity!

There are a few different claims as to who invented popularised the first strings of 'electric' Christmas Tree lights. In 1880, the famous inventor Thomas Edison put some of his new electric light bulbs around his office. And in 1882 Edward Johnson, who was a colleague of Edison, hand-strung 80 red, white and blue bulbs together and put them on his tree in his New York apartment (there were two additional strings of 28 lights mounted from the ceiling!). The lights were about the size of a walnut.

In 1890 the Edison company published a brochure offering lighting services for Christmas. In 1900 another Edison advert offered bulbs which you could rent, along with their lighting system, for use over Christmas! There are records in a diary from 1891 where settlers in Montana used electric lights on a tree. However, most people couldn't easily use electric tree lights at this time as electricity wasn't widely installed in homes. But rich people liked to show off with lights installed just for Christmas, this would have cost about $300 per tree then, more than $2000 money today!

In the December 1901 edition of "The Ladies' Home Journal", there was an advert for "Edison Miniature Lamps" which boasted 'no smoke, smell or grease'; and you could buy or rent the lights. In 1903 there was an advert from Edisons with Christmas lights called festoons - which had eight lights per 'festoon'. Sets of three festoons (so 24 lights) cost $12 or you could rent the lights from $1.50. This was still quite expensive, but much cheaper than $300.

Another claim to the first widespread sale of strings of lights comes from Ralph Morris, an American telephonist. In 1908, he used telephone wire to string together small bulbs from a telephone exchange and decorated a table top tree with them. Leavitt Morris, the son of Ralph, wrote an article in 1952 for the Christian Science Monitor, about his father inventing Christmas Tree lights, as he was un-aware of the Edison lights.

In 1885 a hospital in Chicago burned down because of candles on a Christmas Tree. In 1908 insurance companies in the USA tried to get a law made that would ban candles from being used on Christmas Trees because of the many fires they had caused. However, people still used candles to light Christmas Trees and there were more fires.

In 1917, a fire from Christmas Tree candles in New York, gave a teenager called Albert Sadacca an idea. His family came from Spain and made novelty wicker bird cages that lit up. Albert thought of using the lights in long strings and also suggested painting the bulbs bright colors like red and green. In the following years, he and his brothers formed the NOMA Electric Company, which became a very famous name in Christmas lights.

Candles still remained the way most people had lights on Christmas Trees until the 1930s and beyond as the cost of electric lights was still expensive.

The term 'fairy lights' seems to date from 1882, from the Savoy Theatre in London, when small electric lights were used to decorate the dresses of some fairies on the opening night of Iolanthe by Gilbert and Sullivan. When small lights were used at Christmas, espeically on trees, the name also caught on for those lights.

The first large public display of outdoor electric Christmas lights happened as early as the 1900s, although no one is quite sure who got there first! Early candidates include San Diego, California, Appleton, Wisconsin and New York. Electric tree lights first because widely known in the USA in 1895 when President Grover Cleveland had the tree in the White House decorated with lights as his young daughters liked them! The tradition of the National Christmas Tree on the White House lawn started in 1923 with President Calvin Coolidge.

The famous Rockefeller Center, in New York, has its first Christmas Tree in 1931, when workers building the complex put up a small tree. In 1933 first tree lighting ceremony was held when the tree had 700 lights. It was joined by its skating rink in 1936.

The Rockefeller Center, Christmas 2015

In London, in the UK, the famous 'shopping' Christmas lights started in 1954 in Regent Street with lights on Oxford Street starting in 1959.

The most lights lit at the same time on a Christmas tree is 194,672 and was done by Kiwanis Malmedy / Haute Fagnes Belgium in Malmedy, Belgium, on 10 December 2010!