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According to folklore, it was Protestant Reformer Martin Luther who first had the idea to illuminate trees to replicate the stars among the evergreens during the winter season. While some accounts say the lighting of Christmas trees dates back to the 1600s, this tradition was not brought to the United States until the early 1800s. During this time, candles were used to light Christmas trees, posing a fire hazard in homes. Products were invented to keep the flames away from the drying tree, including glass votives, hanging lanterns, and weighted candle holders, but many Americans were skeptical of lighting a tree.
During the late 1800s, electricity was becoming more widespread across America. Thomas Edison invented the first light bulb in 1879 and shortly after this in 1882, Edison’s friend and business partner, Edward H. Johnson, wired the very first strand of Christmas tree lights. Johnson, now known as the Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights, hand-wired 80 red, white and blue bulbs and used them on his own Christmas tree, which he also wired to revolve at a speed of 6 times per minute. As the tree revolved, the lights twinkled off and on.
President Grover Cleveland electrically illuminated the White House Christmas tree to resemble Johnson’s tree in 1894. This caused interest in electric Christmas lights to grow, but the majority of Americans still used candles on their trees due to the cost.
While the majority of Americans were just getting electricity in their homes and were still skeptical of the power, wealthy Americans were eager to have electric lights on their Christmas trees. Some spent as much as much as $2,000 or more to have an electrician wire electric lights on their trees.
In 1903, General Electric began to sell Christmas lights to the public at $12 per 8-lamp strand – equal to about $300 in today’s dollars. Department stores also had the light strands available for rental for $1.50 – about $37 per strand in today’s dollars. After this, National Outfit Manufacturer’s Association (eventually NOMA Electric Company) came on to the scene and made lights that most Americans could afford. The company dominated the Christmas light industry until the 1960s, when many lights were being imported from outside the US.
Modern Christmas lights continue to evolve, becoming safer and more efficient each year. While many homes still use incandescent Christmas lights, LED lights are the most efficient technology available. LED lights consume 80-90% less energy than incandescent bulbs and last much longer than the traditional incandescent bulb.
Detroit Post and Tribune
Library of Congress, www.loc.gov