When President Barack Obama lighted the White House Christmas tree, he was carrying on a tradition which began in 1895 when President Grover Cleveland sponsored the first electrically lit Christmas tree in the White House featuring more than a hundred multicolored lights.
But that was not the first electrically illuminated Christmas tree. That was a creation of Thomas Edison’s associate, Edward H. Johnson, who was vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company (predecessor of Con Edison electric utility). Johnson had Christmas tree light bulbs made especially for his tree, which he proudly displayed on Dec. 22, 1882.
The tree was hand wired with 80 red, white and blue incandescent bulbs the size of walnuts. The story of the lighted Christmas tree was regarded as a publicity stunt, but a Detroit newspaper reporter wrote the story causing Johnson to be regarded as the “Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights.” By 1900, businesses were stringing up Christmas lights in store windows.
Actually, the Christmas tree was adopted as a part of the holiday celebration in upper-class homes in 18th-century Germany. The tree was occasionally decorated with candles, which were glued with melted wax to a tree branch or attached by pins. Around the 1890s, candleholders were first used and in the early 1900s, people began using small lanterns and glass balls to hold the candles.
The illuminated Christmas tree appeared in the United Kingdom during the reign of Queen Victoria and the tradition spread to North America and Australia.
The 13-year-old princess wrote in her journal on Christmas Eve 1832, "After dinner ... we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room. There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees.”
In the United Kingdom, electrically powered Christmas lights are called “fairy lights.” The term “fairy lights” for a string of electrically powered Christmas lights has been in common usage in the UK ever since.
The first commercially produced Christmas tree lamps were manufactured in strings of multiples of eight sockets by the General Electric Co. of Harrison, N.J. Each socket took a miniature two-candela (a measure of luminosity) carbon-filament lamp.
From that point on, electrically illuminated Christmas trees, but only indoors, grew with mounting enthusiasm in the United States and elsewhere. The first use of outside Christmas light was in San Diego in 1904, Appleton, Wis., in 1909, and New York City in 1912.
According to the Library of Congress, McAdenville, N.C., was credited with being the first for inventing the tradition of decorating evergreen trees with Christmas lights in 1956 when the McAdenville Men's Club came up with the idea of decorating a few trees around the McAdenville Community Center.
The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, however, has had "lights" since 1931, although not electric until 1956. The Philadelphia Christmas Light Show and Disney’s Christmas Tree began in 1956, also. General Electric sponsored community lighting competitions during the 1920s, but it was not until the mid 1950s that the outdoor use of lights would be adopted by the average household.
Over time, Christmas lights were found in other places — inside and out. Strings of lights adorns mantles and doorways inside homes, and runs along the rafters, roof lines and porch railings of homes and businesses. And more recently, many city skyscrapers are decorated with long mostly-vertical strings of a common theme, which are activated simultaneously in Illumination ceremonies.
From candles to electric (and battery), lights seemingly have demanded a special place during the Christmas holidays. And the tradition has different meanings for different people around the world. What began on a tree now illuminates cities.
Should the song, “Deck the Halls (with boughs of holly),” be changed to “Deck the Halls with strings of light bulbs?” No.