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The Illuminating History of Christmas Lights

Edison apprentice invents holiday decorating staple

Christmas lights expertly draped around the tree help set the stage for Santa’s arrival in homes across the world. They also help light up neighborhoods in communities far and wide, whether the homeowner has fashioned a classic holiday scene or takes a more alternative and gaudy route. A simple string of Christmas lights can bring life to the season. Since its invention over 125 years ago, the Christmas light has evolved considerably. From candles precariously perched on tree limbs to flashy LEDs (light-emitting diode) that create dynamic light shows, the Christmas light has revolutionized seasonal displays and holiday spirit.

The First Christmas Light Display
Prior to the invention of the Christmas light, home owners would strategically place lighted candles on tree branches to provide an illuminated glow to their home for seasonal merriment. However, as one would imagine, an open flame and dried pine trees were not necessarily a safe combination, and Christmas trees were highly susceptible to fire. A safer, longer lasting solution was needed to help homeowners decorate their trees during the holiday.

Thomas Edison used his incandescent light bulbs to string up lights around his laboratory in 1880 as a way to market his invention. However, it was his apprentice, Edward Johnson, who created the first string of electrical Christmas lights. In 1882, to much fanfare, Johnson lit up a Christmas tree using 80 small electric light bulbs. Christmas lights became a very popular holiday decoration for wealthy Americans who could afford the $12 per string price tag. (Today, that is equal to $300.) By the early twentieth century, public demand far exceeded supply, and Christmas lights were mass produced by multiple companies to lower cost and increase use.

The holiday tradition of lighting Christmas trees gained national prominence in 1923 when President Calvin Coolidge lit the first National Christmas Tree. The 48-foot tall inaugural tree was decorated with 2,500 red, white and green lights: the first of its kind. The tradition has continued into the 21st century with the 90th annual lighting of the National Christmas Tree taking place on December 6.

Today’s High-Tech Light Shows
The Christmas light has considerably evolved since its incarnation in the early 1880s. The NOMA Electric Corporation helped spur the Christmas light industry in both innovation and sales. Today, Christmas lights come in a variety of shapes, sizes and power sources, creating the ultimate light show.

• Incandescent: Recently eclipsed by more modern lighting technology, incandescent bulbs include a colored coating of glass with translucent paint to filter the broad-spectrum white light with color. In today’s market, incandescent lights come at a considerable cost savings; however, they carry a much higher operating cost compared to energy efficient LEDs.
• Bubble lights: Bubble lights are most commonly sold as novelty light sets. They feature a sealed glass tube with a colored bubbling liquid (methylene chloride) created by the heat generated from the incandescent light.
• LEDs: Known as an energy efficient Christmas light alternative, LEDs carry about one tenth the energy usage than incandescent bulbs. LEDs have a very long lifespan and are more efficient at producing deep, pure colors.
• Fiber optic lights: Christmas light technology has advanced to include the use of fiber optic technology. Artificial Christmas trees have now been outfitted with optic fibers that are intermixed with faux pine needles to create the illusion of glowing branches powered by incandescent or LED lights located in the tree’s base.

Christmas lights have become a big business during the holiday season with an estimated 150 million light sets sold nationwide and more than 80 million homes decorating with lights. New technology has enhanced the traditional Christmas light display; however, the same holiday sentiment and spirit remains.

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