The Christmas tree may have German roots, and they were originally decorated with candles but it is the Americans that are responsible for introducing the electric fairy lights that now adorn them each December.
Thomas Edison was the first person to make a Christmas light display. He was determined to electrify Manhattan, and wanted to draw attention to his incandescent light bulb during the 1880 Christmas season. He laid eight miles of underground wire to power strings of lights around the outside of his New Jersey laboratory. Train commuters traveling between New York and Philadelphia were so amazed by the spectacle that one reporter labeled Edison ‘the Enchanter’ and described the scene as ‘a fairy-land of lights’.
Two years later in 1882, Edison set up a central power plant on Pearl Street in Manhattan. and that Christmas, his friend and colleague Edward Johnson decorated the a Christmas tree with 80 blinking red, white, and blue electric lights.
Benjamin Harrison was the first US President to have a Christmas tree in the White House in 1889, but it wasn’t until 1895, four years after the White House got electricity, that Grover Cleveland requested the first family’s tree be adorned with hundreds of multi-colored bulbs.
Cleveland is credited with warming the public to the idea of electric Christmas lights. At the time, many people mistrusted electricity and thought that dangerous vapours would seep into their homes through the lights and wires.
According to a study by the US Energy Department, seasonal lighting over the Christmas period in 2008 accounted for a staggering 6.63 billion kilowatt hours of electricity use. To put this into perspective, that’s twice as much electricity as Cambodia uses in a year (3.06 billion kilowatt hours). Other nations whose annual consumption is less than that used by US Christmas decorations include Ethiopia, El Salvador, Tanzania and Nepal.
Christmas lights are also responsible for a great many injuries. In Canada during Christmas 2015, more than 40 people were severely injured by falling off ladders, roofs, while attaching them to railings, or by electrocution. The average victim was a 55 year old male.
Furthermore, they can interfere with your wi-fi (as can microwave ovens, fluorescent lights, home electrics, steel girders, concrete cladding and foil insulation). The microwaves coming from your wi-fi router are quite weak, which means they can get blocked by stronger signals.
...that pretty German toy, a Christmas Tree… brilliantly lighted by a multitude of little tapers; and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects.
Christmas lights have been used in the war against insurgency in Colombia: in 2015, advertising executive Jose Sokoloff was asked to design a way to encourage Colombian guerrillas to demobilise. So he decorated each of nine 75ft high trees in the jungle with 2,000 LED lights each and a banner that read: ‘If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home. Demobilise’. The lights were set off by motion detectors.
331 guerrillas - about five percent of the guerrilla population - demobilised as a result of the campaign.
It’s still quite common to decorate your tree with real candles in Denmark.
Early in their history, Christmas lights were so expensive that they were more commonly rented than sold.
Many of the earliest Christmas lights burned so hot that they were about as dangerous as the candles they were to replace.
The town of Shijiao in China is the place where most old Christmas lights are recycled. There, bales of Christmas lights are pulverized, separated into brass, cooper, and plastic, and ultimately turned into everything from slippers to new gadgets.
Twinkling tree lights used to rely on a very simple thermostat to create their blinking effect.
When electricity heats a strip of metal in the bulb, it bends and breaks the circuit. As the metal cools, it bends back and reconnects the circuit to create an intermittent flashing effect.
More modern light displays use an integrated circuit.
Residents of Aurora, Illinois can be fined $50 if they don’t take their Christmas lights down by 25 February.
The record for the world’s largest display of Christmas lights on an artificial tree is held by David Richards of Canberra, Australia. The tree had 518,838 individual lights.
American families go around looking at all the Christmas light displays in the neighbourhood; it’s called the ‘Tacky Light Tour’.