Style & Beauty

How Christmas Lights Became Such An Inescapable Thing

Their joyful glow is much safer than the lights' origin.

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According to legend, the 16th century Protestant reformer Martin Luther first added candles to a Christmas tree, inspired by the beauty of twinkling stars in the sky. It’s unclear if the Luther story is true, but there is a documented reference to candles on trees as early as the 17th century.

Given the hazard of attaching fire sticks to dried-out evergreens, it was a huge deal when in 1880, Thomas Edison strung electric Christmas lights around his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey.

Two years later, Edison’s lieutenant, Edward Hibber Johnson, put electric lights on a Christmas tree in a Manhattan townhouse. Those lights were red, white and blue and as “large as an English walnut.”

By 1890, Edison and Johnson began selling Christmas lights. In 1894, the White House had electric lights on a Christmas tree for the first time.

These lights were extremely expensive.

“A string of 16 vaguely flame-shaped bulbs sitting in brass sockets the size of shot glasses sold for a pricey $12 (about $350 in today’s money) in 1900,” according to Smithsonian Magazine.

In 1914, a string cost about a dollar. Lights were ubiquitous by the 1930s.

Electric lights may not be quite as pretty as candles. But if you derive any joy from the seasonal glow, then they’re just as meaningful as those fire hazard days.


For more on this subject:

Smithsonian Magazine focused on Johnson and Edison’s work.

History did an expansive view of Christmas lights through the centuries.

Mental Floss explored various potential origins.

Popular Mechanics gave a step-by-step of how they became ... popular.

Gizmodo focused more on Edison.