You do it every season: scoot the holiday box from its spot on the dusty storage shelf, untangle the string of lights and plug it in, saying a silent prayer to Santa Claus for no burned-out bulbs. With your puffy jacket on and an energizing whiff of holiday cheer in the air, you steady the ladder against the house and light up the night. Decorating your home with holiday lights is a tried-and-true American tradition – and one that’s steeped in a long, illuminating history.
Holiday light displays evolved from the tradition of decorating the Christmas tree with candles. On the few days before Christmas, the candlelit tree would be displayed in the home’s window, and only lit for a few minutes at night. Hyper-aware of the extraordinary fire danger, families kept buckets of water and sand at the ready. The danger was so real that several insurance companies lobbied for a law banning candles on Christmas trees.
The holiday candle tradition continued until the early 1880s, when Edward Johnson, an associate of Thomas Edison, invented the electric Christmas tree in 1882. Sitting atop a motorized box in his New York City apartment, Johnson’s newfangled tree spun around as 80 red, white and blue lights blinked, much to the delight of his holiday guests.
Inspired by the success of his Christmas creation, Johnson didn’t stop there; he followed his motorized tree with the invention of the first string of holiday lights. Made of 80 small electric bulbs, the strings of lights were soon mass-produced and department stores began hanging them in their holiday displays.
Public holiday light displays in retail stores and government buildings soon became more popular. In 1895, President Grover Cleveland electrically lit the White House Christmas tree, bringing widespread national attention to the twinkly trend. At the time, only wealthy people could afford to electrically light their tree, which was upward of $300 per season. (When adjusted for inflation, that calculates to over $9,000 in 2019!)
In 1927, NOMA Electric Company became the largest holiday light distributor, eventually introducing several innovations to holiday lighting, including all-rubber cords, Bubble Lites and fused safety plugs. NOMA’s niche holiday products even survived the Great Depression; it was during this period that the popular all-blue light displays reflected the somber mood of a troubled nation.
Thanks to NOMA and its competitors, holiday lights became less expensive, and by the 1940s and 1950s, holiday revelers began to purchase Christmas lights of their own, eager for their trees and homes to emulate the elaborate department store displays. In addition to greater affordability, large companies like General Electric began sponsoring community holiday decoration competitions. Often supported by the city, these brightly competitive events encouraged citywide participation, furthering the popularity of decorating with holiday lights.
Aside from only a handful of setbacks – including the 1973 energy crisis prompting a plea from President Nixon to forego the holiday lights to conserve energy – the American holiday light trend has only grown more feverish and fervent over the decades. These days, energy-efficient LED lights help reduce carbon emissions – along with your electric bill – while tech-enabled upgrades, like wifi connectivity and app controls, boost the experience and energy efficiency.
The evolution of American holiday lights has made winter our most luminous season of the year; touring the brightest neighborhoods is always a fun way to spend a cold December night. Even if you’ve got just a few strings, a ladder, and that whiff of Christmas cheer, you’ll make your home more inviting for all of those who are celebrating the season.