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A history on Christmas lights

Electric Christmas lights have a long history, which really amplified during the 1940’s when the use of electricity was growing throughout the United States.

In earlier days, Germany in the 16th century is credited for decorating their Christmas trees with lit candles. Candles were extremely hard to adhere to the tree until 1878 when Frederick Artz invented the first clip-on candleholder. Yet still, fire on a flammable tree was a fairly dangerous endeavor.


Figure 1 Photo Courtesy of Pinterest

The first use of electric Christmas lights, however, occurred much earlier in 1882 when a friend and business partner of Thomas Edison, Mr. Edward Johnson, hand-wired eighty American themed red, white and blue bulbs and hung them on a rotating pine tree in his home. A Detroit Press and Tribune reporter wrote on the exhibit.

In 1895, President Cleveland commissioned a tree lighting at the White House which included hundreds of multicolored lights. A stir was created amongst the public and Christmas tree lighting popularized quickly.


Figure 2 President Coolidge at the lighting of the first National Christmas Tree on December 24th, 1923. Photo courtesy of Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Still, for quite some time Christmas lights were too expensive for the general public to afford until General Electric Co. in 1903 created a pre-assembled Christmas lighting system.

Christmas tree lights popularized even more when a fire broke out in 1917, New York City, due to lighting candles on a tree. A young 15 year-old Albert Sadacca suggested to his parents to begin a Christmas light business with the lights they had left over from a previously owned company. They then began painting the bulbs Christmas colors and their business expanded quickly. NOMA Electric became a multi-million dollar company.

Developments had not been made on electrical power supply, especially outside of major cities and electric sockets had not been invented yet, so lighting a Christmas tree was quite the task for some time. Many had to hire professional wireman, who used a screw-in current tap to have the tree lit.

What makes Christmas lights “twinkle”?

Blinking lights actually rely on over heating (so to speak). They have a single thermostat and when the electricity heats a metal strip inside the bulb, it breaks and bends the circuit. The metal cools and it bends backward and reconnects the circuit to create the flashing effect. More modern lights, however, use an integrated circuit.

Costs associated with Christmas light displays

Although costs have drastically decreased for the regular and widespread use of Christmas lighting and décor, it can still be very costly. In 2013, the United States spent around $6 billion on Christmas decorations. The average electric cost to plug in 10 strands of incandescent Christmas lights for a two-month period is $69.00, while the same for LED Christmas lights is $20.70. Incandescent wattage is 80-90% more than LED wattage, so the cost can be up to 90 times greater than powering and LED. LED’s may also last 66 times longer than incandescent mini lights.