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The History and Meaning of Christmas Lights in America

The American tradition of decorating evergreen trees, homes, and landscapes, with brightly lit Christmas lights is not as old as many people think. Most of us probably assume that Americans have always used Christmas lights, in one form or another, but this isn’t exactly true. As it turns out, this American tradition has only been around for about 60 years, but the development of the tradition has a story and history that began centuries ago.

The History and Meaning of Christmas Lights in America

A Yuletide Tradition

In his article “Christmas Lights and Community Building in America,” Brian Murray explores the history of the modern American Christmas tradition in great detail. In this article, Brian argues that the genesis of the American Christmas light tradition arose from the medieval page tradition of Yule. Yule is a tradition believed to have been started in Germany wherein people will celebrate the winter solstice and the short dark days of winter by burning the “Yule Log.” The burning of the Yule Log offered welcome light during the dark winter days and was also believed to summons the return of the sun and ward of evil spirits. This medieval tradition was adopted by churches who incorporated it into their annual celebrations. As adopted by the Christian churches, the light from the Yule Log burning came to represent Jesus as the light of the world.

Murray also presents many other traditions which he believes contributed to the modern tradition of Christmas lights, including Candlemas, Christingle, and Luminaria.

Christmas Trees Come Inside

The modern American tradition of Christmas lights did not arise out of these ancient winter time traditions alone–the modern tradition also developed in large part as a result of the introduction of the Christmas tree. Murry’s article on the history of Christmas lights traces the origin of the Christmas tree to the Druids, who used holly and mistletoe as symbols of eternal life. The Germans and Scandinavians expanded this tradition, by bringing evergreen trees into their homes, as symbols of life and the upcoming spring. This tradition was brought to America by the German Moravians who settled in Pennsylvania and North Carolina in the early 19th century. The Moravians practiced the tradition of “putzing” which was the decorating of evergreen trees with ornaments, fruits, and eventually lights.

The Short-lived Candlelit Christmas Tree and the Birth of the Electric Christmas Light

Drawing on these and some other traditions practiced by the early Dutch settlers, Harvard Professor Charles Follen decorated an evergreen tree with candles in 1832, which is believed to be the first use of Christmas tree lights. Because these trees were quite expensive at the time, their use was largely limited to large public displays until, as Murray explains, entrepreneurs began opening the first Christmas tree lots. Murray writes that the first of these was established in New York City’s Washington Market around 1851. The lower cost trees fueled the demand for the candle lit trees, and by 1856 the first lighted Christmas tree was erected on the White House lawn by President Franklin Pierce.

As the popularity of candle-lit trees expanded, a new industry emerged, including inventors who developed new ways to affix the candles to the tree. Although some clever inventions helped keep the candles affixed to the trees, no one was able to resolve the serious fire hazard posed by the flame-bearing evergreens. The candle-lit Christmas tree met its death at the hands of a few large insurance companies, which added new language to their policies, excluding fire damage caused by Christmas tree fires. At the same time, the electric light bulb had been invented, and Thomas Edison and his partner Edward Johnson introduced the first electric Christmas lights to the public in 1882.

Christmas Lights, Christmas Trees, & Community

The new electric Christmas lights were very expensive, and a short string could cost as much as $12, which would be the equivalent of more than $250.00 in 2006. This hefty price was out of reach to all but the most wealthy Americans. However, significant technical and production improvements reduced the price to about $1.74 (about $36 in 2006) by 1914, and by 1920 most everyone could afford them.

Murray’s in depth look at the Christmas light, doesn’t stop at the commercial availability of the modern light string. It goes on to evaluate the modern Christmas tree, and it’s role as a center-piece for unifying communities (especially urban communities). In 1912, feeling a loss of a sense of community, a group of wealthy New Yorkers established the New York Christmas celebration. The group, which called itself the Tree of Light, hoped to injected a renewed sense of community into the city, which it felt had been lost during the rapid progression of urbanization, during the industrial revolution. With an illuminated Christmas tree as the centerpiece, the group hoped that the event would achieve: 1) greater friendship and socialization between the diverse social and ethnic classes of the City; 2) religious unity and racial integration; and 3) religious homogeneity. Although the event was unquestionably Christian, the resultant celebration was entirely secular, and the focus was not the celebration of Christ’s birthday. The event drew a diverse crowd of people from a variety of religious, racial, and ethnic backgrounds, who gathered together to enjoy the illuminated tree and community event. Murray suggests that the event did not achieve any of the group’s original 3 goals, but credits it as the beginning of a national trend of community holiday celebrations.

Building on the lighted Christmas trees growing popularity as a community centerpiece, Murray also argues that the popularity of the modern Christmas light can also be partly attributed to the national mood during the Great Depression and First and 2nd World Wars. In times of great national crisis, cultures often look to simple symbols or traditions as a source of hope, peace, or national unity. In the early 20th century the Christmas tree was this symbol for many people across America, and it even appeared as a symbol of hope in British war propaganda films.

Christmas Lights in the Modern Era

As World War II came to an end, an era of depression, war, and suffering for Americans also soon came to an end. At the 1957 Christmas tree lighting ceremony, President Eisenhower explained the developing tradition: The custom we now observe brings us together for a few minutes this one night – you and I, here, are not alone in a world indifferent and cold. We are part of a numerous company, united in the brotherhood of Christmas.

With the financial woes of the depression and war era behind them, Americans began making and spending more money. This newly developing consumerism created many new niche markets for Christmas lights and decorations. Murray’s article discusses many of the fads that developed in the Christmas light industry, including the marvelous Bubble Light of the 1940’s, and before the decade was over Americans could buy lights the twinkled, blinked, and flickered.

As the Christmas light celebrations spread from their origins in New York City, the form of the displays began to change with the landscape of the communities. In west coast cities were urban sprawl was common and centralized downtowns were scarce, Murray identifies the possible beginning of the use of Christmas lights for wide-scale outdoor decoration beyond the city square. These displays, like the annual one installed on the Miracle Mile in Los Angeles, create a spectacle for motorists and pedestrians alike.

What is the Significance of Christmas Lights Today?

Today it is estimated that more than 150 million light sets are sold in America each year, with more than 80 million homes decorated with holiday lights. Most of these Americans (including myself before I read Murray’s article) have little or no understanding, or appreciation for this American tradition. In concluding is article Murray presents the following question:

What is the greater significance of Christmas lights, and what do they say about the American character?

Although it has become a push-button issue in some political communities and debates about the separation of church and state (Michigan passed a law officially naming its tree a “Christmas tree” rather than a “Holiday Tree”), based on the history presented by Murry and most American’s understanding of the tradition, decorating with Christmas lights is not about religion. The term “Christmas lights”, has become a generic word for light strings used for decorating during the winter season or holidays–just as Xerox was commonly used to describe copy machines. The point of Murray’s article, is that this American tradition arose out of a variety of secular winter traditions, and the use of Christmas lights to celebrate winter holidays is not about Christianity or any other particular religion. Just like the burning of the Yule Log provided welcome light in darkness of winter for the German tribes people, modern Christmas lights provide spirit-lifting light in our rural and urban communities. Our local and national holiday displays, and Christmas trees, provide a forum for community gathering and socialization. To define the significance or meaning of the American tradition of decorating evergreen trees and their homes for the winter holidays, in terms the Christian religion is misplaced. Regardless if we call them Christmas lights, holiday lights, fairy lights, twinkle lights, or any other term – this great tradition which has evolved over thousands of years, across multiple cultures, nationalities, and religions, has a meaning and significance that is much more complex than a single word.

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