For a lot of us, Christmas is all about big family meals, decorating the Christmas tree, shopping for gifts, and enjoying the sights and sounds that come along with the most joyous time of the year. Chances are that you might even be planning on putting up some Christmas lights this year! Christmas lights are used both indoors, and even more ornately outdoors to decorate our homes and yards for everyone to enjoy. But do you know why we practice this beautiful tradition? Well, here’s the story of the Christmas light!
The Race to the Patent Office
Thomas Edison filed the patent for the incandescent light bulb in 1879. However, Edison wasn’t the only one toiling away at the creation of the light bulb. An Italian inventor by the name of Alessandro Volta was working at inventing a voltaic pile made of alternating discs of zinc and copper that would generate electricity. The glowing copper wire was believed to be the first form of incandescent lighting, although it would also be an early form of the modern battery. Following hot on his heels was an English inventor - Humphrey Davy. He invented the first ever electric lamp in 1802. The electric arc lamp, as it was called, worked by connecting voltaic piles to charcoal electrodes. It would emit a bright arc of light between the carbon rods. The next advancement was made by Warren de la Rue in 1840. He created a light bulb that used a coiled platinum filament instead of copper. Inventors like Joseph Swan, Henry Woodward, and Matthew Evans would all further advance the development of the light bulb.
Fast forward to 1879 and you will find Thomas Edison standing in line at the patent office with the design for the world’s first practical incandescent light bulb. While Thomas Edison gets most of the credit for inventing the lightbulb, he was in fact just one of many to dedicate their lives to shedding light on our day to day activities!
Let There Be (Christmas) Lights!
Thomas Edison was famous for shamelessly promoting the benefits of the incandescent light bulb. He wanted everyone to know just how amazing these inventions were, and how dramatically they could improve the life of everyone. As the 1880s wore on, Edison was having trouble getting widespread approval for this new technology. So when the holiday season arrived, Edison took it upon himself to string up incandescent bulbs all around the perimeter of his Menlo Park laboratory.
Leave it to Edison to up the ante on his own accord though. He decided to challenge himself to powering the lights from a generator eight miles away. It wasn’t enough that these lights be gorgeous and festive, he also wanted to prove that they were a reliable and safe source of light. It is believed that it here when lights were first used to celebrate the holiday season.
The Arrival of Christmas Tree Lights
Over the next few years, incandescent light bulbs were becoming more and more common in homes across North America. However, Edison and his friend Edward Johnson saw another possibility. On December 22, 1882 these two fellow inventors put on display the world’s first illuminated Christmas tree. This magnificent looking tree showcased 80 red, white, and blue electric lights, on a slightly less than remarkable looking tree. Edward Johnson was in fact a member of Edison’s team - the Illumination Company.
Prior to Edison’s adoption of incandescent light bulbs as Christmas decoration, wax candles were the traditional mode of decor. In fact, Edison’s idea to replace these nostalgic wax candles was not met with enthusiasm. Nevertheless, Edison was confident that they would come into popularity. By the 1890’s you could purchase factory made electric Christmas lights. However, it was primarily the wealthy who were purchasing this new technology. Stores across New York City where Edison’s tree was first showcased also became early adopters of electric Christmas lights.
Electric Christmas lights did not make their way into the majority of homes until the early 20th century. The slow acceptance of electric Christmas lights was mostly due to the fact that there was - much to Edison’s dismay - a general distrust of electric lighting in general! Homeowners questioned the safety of this technology, fearing that it would light their valuable homes on fire!
In 1895, President Grover Cleveland requested that the White House tree be decorated with multicoloured electric lights. However, even this patriotic act of support did little to increase the popularity of Edison’s electric holiday lighting. It wasn’t until 1903 that you could purchase Christmas lighting kits to decorate your home.
Albert Sadacca’s Christmas Lights
Edison was not alone for long in his pursuit of popularizing festive holiday lighting. In 1917, Albert Sadacca began selling coloured Christmas lights through his family’s ornamental novelty business. He was inspired to start this side project after reading of several accounts of trees catching fire from the candles adorning them. By this point, society’s distrust of electricity was beginning to wear off, and Sadacca along with his brothers enjoyed more widespread popularity.
The Practical Side of Holiday Lighting
As we well know in Oakville, decorating for the holidays isn’t all about mistletoe and icicle lighting, it’s also about practicality! With the days getting shorter and the nights getting darker holiday lighting is just one way to keep your property safe and secure while also looking festive! Before electric Christmas lighting came into vogue, candles were used not only to achieve a festive glow, but also much needed illumination and heat. For families living without electricity or heat, candles were a source of warmth, and also a way not to miss the last step. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the pre-existing tradition of the Christmas tree was combined with candles as a form of decoration. And in the centuries that followed it was proven time and time again that candles on the tree might not have been the brightest idea in the first place.