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The History of Christmas Lights

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

In the Western world, it is a longstanding tradition to celebrate the joyous season with colourful and cheerful decorations. There is certainly no one or right way to bring about festivities to this time of year. For some people, the day feels special and cozy enough with just a minimal Christmas tree and some string lights in the living room. For many others, it is all about the extravagant lighting scheme with a “more is more” approach. It goes without saying that Christmas lights play a significant role in this tradition.

Of course, over the years, holiday lighting trends and technologies have evolved in more ways than one could imagine. However, whether it be projectors, LED lights or old-fashioned candles, the purpose of Christmas lights remains the same. On their own, they create beautiful works of art with great cultural significance. And as a part of a century-old practice, Christmas lights make the perfect decoration for evergreens. Not only do they bring out the holiday spirit and our child-like excitement, but they also represent the comfort for the year that was and the hopes for the year that is to come.

So, how did Christmas lights evolve to what it is today?

Once upon a time, it all started with candlelights.

Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition in the 16th century when Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. That became a symbol of Christ – being triangular, representing the trinity – and from there came the idea that the tree should symbolise Christ and new life.

Originally, it was standard practice to illuminate the tree and its ornaments with candles, using hot wax and pressing the base of candles onto tree branches. Later, pins were used to secure the candles in their position. This practice continued until around the 1900s, when candleholders became more popular. They were able to balance the candles upright at the very top with a long counterweight that hung under or to the side of tree branches. It was not until around 1915 that candle lanterns came into use. At this time, lanterns were available in standard shapes or moulded into holiday figures like Santa Claus or the snowman, which really diversified the looks and feels of Christmas trees.

Image: Candleholders utilised to keep candles upright and as a Christmas tree decoration.

Though lighting a tree with candles was as enchanting as possible, it was also logically hazardous. The open flames are prone to come into contact with pine needles, especially on a dried-out tree, which could easily spark a fire. Due to the fire risks, many homeowners would keep buckets of water or sand near their trees. Additionally, candles were high-maintenance and inconvenient. They were small, therefore short-lived, and often left drippings of wax on the floor.

The exciting entrance of light bulbs and electricity

The invention of light bulbs and electricity marked a significant milestone for Christmas lights. In 1882, the first Christmas tree to be lit by electric lights was sighted in New York, as a part of Edison and Edward Johnson’s publicity stunt to popularise the incandescent bulb. The tree sat atop a motorised box that spun it around as eighty red, white and blue lights blinked on and off. Soon after, in 1894, the then-US President Grover Cleveland also helped make the lights popular after lighting a Christmas tree in the Oval Room of the White House. 

This led to the creation of the first Christmas string lights, a concept that remains popular today. At this time, bulbs would have to be purchased (or rented) from Edison’s company and hand connected to the wires. This is a time-consuming process that might cost hundreds of dollars and require the skills of an electrician, which made holiday lights a prevalent and exclusive item of the upper-class, who could afford such an extravagant display. By the 1900s, string lights became more popular, with many department stores using Christmas lights to liven up their holiday displays. Almost three decades later, incandescent Christmas lights had become an acquainted tradition of the holiday celebration. Having said that, these lights were far from flawless since the light bulbs can get relatively hot and quick to start a fire on a dry tree.

The Next Big Thing – Miniature Lights

Between the evolution from incandescent to miniature lights, history recorded a brief phase of popularity for Bubble Christmas Lights by NOMA Electric Corporation, the largest Christmas light manufacturer at the time. However, in the 1950s, as the first miniature lamp sets, also known as fairy lamps or twinkle lights, were sold, and bubble lights slowly descended in their use.

Image: Bubble Christmas Lights popularised by NOMA Electric Corporations in the 1900s. 

Miniature lights were available in sets, wired in series and worked at a lower voltage, using a shunt that closed automatically if an individual bulb burnt out. This means that even as one bulb burned out, others in the set still function, which was considered safer and much more sustainable than their predecessors.

This new upgrade in the Christmas lighting market was inexpensive and could easily be mass-produced. Eventually, it became the preferred choice for most households, substituting older lighting technologies. This shift led to a greater consumption wave towards Christmas lights, decorations and holiday-themed public displays.

Holiday lights today

The next revolution in Christmas lighting was LED lights. The early versions of the luminaire were expensive and could only produce red light. Unlike incandescent bulbs that produced white light then must be put through a filter or gel to render different colours, LEDs produced only a single shade of light. The most complex colour to make was blue, which only became available in the late 1990s at a price that would enable them to be used as Christmas light strings.

Though the LED light strings still have a higher initial cost but cheaper to run with a much longer lifetime compared to traditional lighting sources. Of course, LED lights are much more minimal in their set-up, the illumination is not easily viewed during the day but create impressive displays at night.

We have also seen Christmas lights being celebrated in recent years without the conventional attachment to evergreens. For instance, every year, the gorgeous Melbourne Town Hall is lit up using projectors to reflect light on its surface and tell enchanting stories as a part of the city’s celebrations. It is a beautiful and magical way to bring family and friends together for the holiday season.

Image: Melbourne Town Hall Christmas Projections 

At the same time, Sydney remains iconic with the glowing set up at St Mary’s Cathedral, which is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular Christmas light displays the city has to offer. It is an amazing moment when the lights take over the Cathedral’s façade, combined with a mesmerising presentation with music, dancing lights and projections.

Image: Light of Christmas at St Mary’s Cathedral

Looking back at the history of Christmas lights, it makes sense to wonder how it will progress for another hundred years. Are we moving towards the era of projections and AR technologies? Or are we simultaneously moving backwards by bringing retro lighting trends like candlelight back to life? Though unpredictable, one thing for sure is that holiday lights will continue their everlasting heritage as the bringer of joy and hope for our holiday seasons!

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