The Language of Home

Light Fright

From enchanting twinklers to garish displays, Christmas light displays run the gamut

By Noah Salt

In Christmas folklore, 16th-entury German priest and reformer Martin Luther was reportedly so moved by the twinkling of winter stars he was inspired to attach candles to a fir from the local forest, and light them on Christmas Eve, creating the first lighted Christmas tree.

His countrymen adopted the practice and by the 19th century, the tradition had spread across Europe. In 1832, Britain’s 13-year-old princess Victoria jotted in her Christmas Eve diary: “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.” As the end of the century approached, the advent of electricity dramatically changed the use and popularity of holiday lights, which were sometimes called “fairy lights” across Britain. London’s  Savoy Theatre was reportedly the first building in the world to be lit entirely by electric lights. Within a year, strings of electrically powered colored lights were all the rage in London’s theater district — and rapidly spread in use in cities everywhere.

An associate of Thomas Edison’s named Edward Johnson reportedly created the first electrically illuminated Christmas tree by hand-wiring 80 walnut-sized red, white and blue electric incandescent light bulbs and placing them on a rotating fir tree in his Fifth Avenue home in Manhattan on December 22, 1882. The New York papers ignored the story, dismissing it as simply a publicity stunt for Edison’s new company. But Johnson had the well, bright idea, to engage an enterprising reporter from the Detroit Post and Tribune to publish an account of the event. He described “a continuous twinkling of dancing colors, red, white, blue, white, red, blue — all evening. I need not tell you that the scintillating evergreen was a pretty sight — one can hardly imagine anything prettier.” His description earned Johnson the sobriquet “Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights.”

In 1895, President Grover Cleveland put up the White House’s first electrically lighted Christmas tree featuring over 100 multicolored lights. The estimated total cost including a generator was  $300, way out of the average homeowner’s budget. In 1903, however, General Electric introduced holiday lights that could be rented by the strand for $12.

From then on, as historians note, towns and cities raced to claim their place in Christmas tree lore. San Diego, Appleton (Wisconsin) and New York City boasted the first recorded instances of outdoor holiday lights, though North Carolina’s own town of McAdenville (southwest of Charlotte) seems to have been the first to light several of its municipal trees around its community center in 1956 — a claim supported by the Library of Congress. To this day, McAdenville’s annual display of outdoor lights draws thousands of holiday tourists who make the circuit through the pretty town center, illuminated by more than half-a-million Christmas lights.

Each year, America’s annual obsession with holiday lights eats up about 6.63 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, or roughly one-sixth of the nation’s entire energy consumption in December — and that’s based on 2015 figures. By one calculation, it’s been predicted that some Americans will spend as much as $200–600 a month on electrifying their holiday lights.

Not to sound like some proverbial Ebenezer Scrooge, (for yours truly does appreciate the lighted balls in Greensboro’s Sunset Hills neighborhood or the winking “Blinkies” created by Kernersville’s Roger Briles), but we see a need for some restraint. Given the explosion of holiday lights in your loyal correspondent’s own neighborhood — which commences with illuminated ghouls and Great Pumpkins at Halloween, and then gives way to incandescent flying turkeys at Thanksgiving only to be followed by lighted giant Santas, reindeer and snowmen that would be the envy of Clark Griswald and seem larger and brighter each passing season, blotting out the clockwork beauty of the winter stars in the process — we almost yearn for the days when a few simple candles on the fir tree nicely accomplished the feat.

We understand that in the city of San Diego, which helped launch holiday lighting fever many decades ago, city fathers and mothers now have an ordinance that homeowners who fail to remove their holiday lights after February 2 may face a $250 fine. Ho, ho, ho!

That strikes us as quite sensible. We love Christmas lights as much as the next person . . . but wouldn’t it be nice to see those winter stars the way the Wise Men did, once upon a time?  h

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