The tradition of Christmas lights on houses, around windows, and strung through trees began with a friend of the lightbulb inventor Thomas Edison, in 1882. While Edward Johnson brought modern technology into the mix, light had been used to celebrate the holiday for a long time before that.
Before modern strings with bulbs, candles would be hung and lit on the Christmas tree. As you can imagine, hanging candles from a tree kept fire departments around the country busy during the holiday season. Johnson’s idea was to bring his friend’s invention into the mix, to help make the holiday a little safer while still enjoying the light.
The first strands were large and bulky, and consisted of 8 bulbs that were strung around the tree.
This update to the Christmas tree came in an era when many of our holiday traditions were being updated. The first drawings of a modern Santa Claus, drawn by Thomas Nast, were published in 1862. Charles Dickens’ book A Christmas Carol was published in 1843. The first Christmas tree was put up in the White House by President Franklin Pierce in 1856.
Christmas lights came in an era when modern-day holiday traditions were being shaped, but they took a little longer to catch on than other traditions. Price kept them in only the richest areas for some time. The first strands sold for $12, the equivalent of hundreds of dollars in today’s money.
As electricity became more prevalent around the country, the price of bulbs dropped and the technology spread. By the 1930s they were readily accessible, and were used in homes across the country.
Today, around 80 million homes are lit up with those much more accessible Christmas lights. We put them on our trees and use them to decorate the exteriors of our homes. The brightness that they create is a significant part of showcasing holiday spirit.