The Origins of Christmas Lights

By Ashley Mertel

Lighting up a Christmas tree today consists of simply plugging it in, but in back in the day it was not that simple.

The tradition, which originated in Germany, started in the 17th century and later spread to Eastern Europe, and eventually came to America. The lighting of Christmas trees (which was previously just the lighting of a single Yule log) was created by those who believed to celebrate Yule. The tradition started because during the dark days of December and the winter solstice, people lit candles and logs to welcome light back into the days. Also, it was a way of summoning the return of the sun and warding off evil spirits.

Eventually, the churches adopted the tradition. The burning of Yule logs was then said to represent Jesus being the light of the world. The burning of Yule logs morphed into the lighting of a Christmas tree, but not without a few problems first.

Back before the invention of the light bulb and electricity, people found stone-age ways to light a Christmas tree. They would glue candles to the branches or place them all around the tree to illuminate the area. People would only light the trees for a few minutes a night due to fire hazards. It was common to find buckets of water next to a Christmas tree in case of emergency. Though there was the risk of fire, people lit their trees so much that insurance companies stopped covering house fires caused by Christmas tree lighting.

In 1882, Thomas Edison’s friend, Edward Johnson, lit the first electric Christmas tree in New York City. There were only 80 bulbs on the string of lights. The intention of this lighting was actually an advertising tool to open up the market for Christmas lights. Their selling point was to excite and heighten the holiday season. The price for Christmas lights back then was equivalent to $300 in today’s dollar value.

Today Christmas lights are now more affordable and common. They help enhance the holidays and are part of the excitement of the season. Many people who hang their holiday lights this season probably will not realize the Christmas lights they are putting up originated as the burning of one Yule log.

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