How the twinkles in your tree were made to save you from a candlelit Christmas
If you’ve ever been annoyed by tangled strings of Christmas lights, it may help to take solace in the fact that they’re unlikely to burn your home to the ground. This was a big concern Martin Luther convinced his family to dress up a tree with candles. As the idea of bringing a tree into your home became more common, so did reports of sometimes fatal fires, which made the eventual arrival of strings of electric lights an attractive alternative. If safety wasn’t enough, the early adopters of tree lights got a lot of good press, partly in thanks to the fact that they were all Gilded Age socialites in Manhattan.
From wax to wiring
The original intent of lighted trees wasn’t to endanger anyone, of course. Martin Luther had apparently been walking through the woods and was smitten with the way starlight twinkled through the branches of trees in the woods at night. He wanted to share that feeling with his family, and proposed placing lit candles among the branches of a tree at home. While Martin Luther is credited with first decorating a tree like this, he wasn’t the first person to include candles in his decor. A traditional German Christmas decoration was the Weihnachtspyramide, or Christmas Pyramid. The small wooden structure, resembling a multi-tiered gazebo housing nativity figurines, were based somewhat on light stands, and thus usually included candles in their design. On the top, a windmill-like set of blades could rotate when pushed by air heated by those candles, but the thermodynamics of open flames didn’t seem to be so well accounted for when the candles were moved to trees.
So in 1882, three years after the invention of the electric light, people were ready to move on from such perilous traditions. People who could afford the lights, that is. Edward Hibberd Johnson, who was an associate of Thomas Edison, splurged for a custom set hand-wired electric lights for the tree in his front parlor. The bulbs were about the size of a walnut, and required skilled installation to put in place. Things were complicated further by the fact that the tree sat on a rotating platform, so that nobody could miss the amazing display in Johnson’s home.
Modern to mainstream
With the help of gushing newspaper write-ups, plus an electrified tree in the White House in 1895, electric lights became the hot (but not dangerously hot) thing to have in your Christmas display. Even at $300 a tree, plenty of wealthy people in Manhattan felt the new lights were worth splurging for. Once industrial manufacturing and widespread electrical infrastructure were in place, electric lights could be sold to a wider swath of the population. By 1903, a fairly pricey $12 set of lights were being marketed as “simple, clean and safe.” Renting that set for $1.50 was in reach of more consumers, as that more modest fee was around $38.70 in 2016 dollars. There was enough demand for the 1925 debut of the NOMA Electric Company‘s tiny, colored lights that we now think of as the standard for holiday lighting. Technical innovations followed, with blinking lights being developed in the 1920s, and safety fuses arriving in 1951. By that time, the notion of candles in your tree was essentially (ahem,) extinguished.
My second grader asked: What color were the first lights?
The first string of lights were 80 bulbs of red, white and blue. While this wasn’t a terribly traditional color scheme, people didn’t feel that electric lights in a tree were terribly traditional either.