Christmas Traditions

A Lite History Of Christmas Lights

From 17th Century Germany to Thomas Edison's lab in New Jersey, this brief history of Christmas Lights is quite illuminating.

by | February 21, 2022

Multicolor Christmas Lights on floor
Believe it or not, the origin of Christmas lights actually dates back far before the invention of electricity. In 17th Century Germany, people started decorating their homes with candles to celebrate the holiday season. Despite the dangers of covering wooden houses and highly flammable trees with open flames, the tradition caught on, well, like wildfire. 

Sometime later, Thomas Edison patented the electric lightbulb in 1880 but it was his business partner who had a brilliant idea to promote the invention. Edward Hibberd Johnson manufactured a string of 80 red, white, and blue light bulbs, and placed them on a tree in his parlor window. The tree was on a rotating pedestal, and it caught the eye of everyone who passed, including several reporters that later covered the new phenomenon.

Over a decade later, electric lights started to replace candles on the tree in the White House and in the homes of most wealthy families. In fact, many people credit President Grover Cleveland for popularizing electric Christmas lights when he chose to have them added to his family tree at the White House in 1895. By the 1920’s, electricity was widely available and the cost of lights was low enough that they were affordably mass produced. 

Thomas Edison Christmas Lights Original Ad

In 1923 another brilliant Christmas tradition was born and, once again, Washington DC had a part in its popularity. A massive tree was erected on the lawn of the White House, and it was decorated with hundreds of strands of electric lights. On Christmas Eve, a local choir performed, as President Calvin Coolidge flipped the switch to light the first National Christmas Tree. This may not have been the first tree lighting ceremony but it was arguably the most popular, at least until a decade later when Rockefeller Center began their own annual celebration.

While there have been many advances in lighting technology since the early 1900s, many of the classic bulb shapes and patterns are still seen in stores today. What is your favorite style of Christmas Lights?

“Is your house on fire, Clark?” - Aunt Bethany

“No Aunt Bethany, those are the Christmas lights.” - Clark Griswold