Whether fans of traditional understated white bulbs or colorful Griswold-esque excess, for many families lighting the family Christmas tree is an anticipated holiday tradition on par with exchanging gifts and waistline-threatening feasts. This was not always the case, however, as safety concerns and high costs hindered early efforts to popularize Christmas lights and it was not until 1917 that the tradition truly took hold.
The first strand of electric Christmas lights was created in 1882 by Edward H. Johnson, a friend of Thomas Edison and employee of Edison Electric, who decorated his family tree with 80 red, white and blue bulbs. Families at that time typically lighted their trees with glass candle holders or metal candle lanterns, which were attached to branches using clips, pins or elaborate clay counterweights. The risk of fire posed by both methods was considerable and families often kept a pail of water next to the tree in case of accidental conflagrations. However, trees were usually lighted for only a half-hour at most and it was considered such an important event that family members gathered around the tree during the entire time, conversing and gazing at the lights.
Despite their novelty, Christmas lights were met with some resistance by the public. There was a general fear of electric power, and this distrust was fed by sensationalized accounts of electrocutions. In addition, without electrical outlets lighting one’s tree required hiring the services of an electrician, or “wireman,” and could cost the 1900s equivalent of $2000. President Grover Cleveland helped popularize Christmas lighting by requesting lights for his White House family tree in 1895, and in 1903 General Electric began marketing pre-wired lighting kits. In 1917, Albert Sadacca, a teenager whose family owned a novelty lighting business, suggested selling brightly colored strands of Christmas lights in the store. The offering was extremely popular and Albert and his brothers soon organized what in the 1920s became NOMA Electric Co., a leader in the Christmas light industry until the 1960s.
“An Abridged History of Christmas Lights.” Harrowsmith Country Life (11908416) 34.215 (2010): 14. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 14 Dec. 2011.
Sloat, Warren. “The Wizard Of Your Christmas Tree.” American Heritage 54.6 (2003): 36. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 14 Dec. 2011.