In 1882, Edward Johnson, an associate of Thomas Edison, lit the first Christmas tree by the use of electricity with 80 small electric light bulbs. He also created the first string of electric Christmas lights that were then mass produced.
By 1900, department stores started using the new Christmas lights for their holiday displays. By the 1920s General Electric had improved upon the invention.
Today, colorful decorations have become a rite of passage, a holiday tradition. According to homesafetyexperts.com, “The average American family typically spends anywhere between $50 to $300 extra on their electric bill during the holiday season.” Festive lights can be seen all over Cleveland and across the country as people display attractive lights in all shapes, sizes and dazzling colors to commemorate the holiday season.
Christmas lights have come a long ways from the days when only candles adorned many frost-covered windows on cold winter nights. The use of decorative lights during the holiday season is a longstanding tradition in many cultures, bringing seasons greetings and holiday cheer to onlookers who find such displays of light to be breathtaking and part of the Christmas spirit.
The use of lights in celebrations, however, has a history that predates Christianity and can be traced back to ancient cultures who shared a very colorful past in promoting the divinity of light.
Earl W. Count in his book “4,000 Years of Christmas” noted, “The bright fires, the giving of presents, the merrymaking, the feasting, the processions with their lights and song — all these and more began (in Mesopotamia) three centuries before Christ was born.”
Ancient Northern people reportedly feared the darkness of December, so part of their magical rite was to decorate their homes with holly, mistletoe and evergreens because they seemed to have a supernatural resistance to winter. Candles and bonfires were burned in an effort to help revive the sun. To many primitive cultures this seemed to work. In time these superstitions became traditions. In other areas the sun itself became an object of worship.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “In the third and fourth centuries A.D., the cult of Mithra, carried and supported by the soldiers of the Roman Empire, was the chief rival to the newly developing religion of Christianity. As god of light, Mithra was associated with the Greek sun god, Helios, and the Roman Sol Invictus.”
Under, “The survival of Roman religion,” the Encyclopedia Britannica added, “But even when this phase came to an end, Roman paganism continued to exert other, permanent influences, great and small. The ecclesiastical calendar retains numerous remnants of pre-Christian festivals — notably Christmas, which blends elements including both the feast of the Saturnalia and the birthday of Mithra.”
Since Dec. 25 was actually the birthday of Mithra, the Iranian god of light, and the Roman festival of the birth of the unconquered sun was also celebrated at this time as “the festival of Saturnalia,” some people see the festive lights of Christmas as a carry-over of pagan rites. Others see it as a harmless integration of ancient traditions mixed with new religious beliefs. Such practices have touched other objects of the Yuletide season.
In his book, “The Story of Christmas,” Michael Harrison concluded that “It was apparently the fusion of two old customs; lights with evergreens, which gave us our modern Christmas tree.”
Other celebrations using lights also took place in December. For example, many Jewish families burn candles as part of the eight-day Festival of Lights commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple by the Maccabees after their victory over the Syrians.
In was in the 19th century, however, when a new light — the electric light — would shine on holiday celebrations, bringing a whole new level of colorful excitement and wonder to people of all ages. The National Retail Federation and BIG Research, says the U.S. spends more than $6 billion on Christmas decorations every year.
Despite their origin or the expenses associated with electricity, Christmas lights are as popular as ever and will ring in another season of bright holiday wishes.