From Candle to LED: A Short History of Christmas Lights
Jul 09 2019
Energy efficient LED Lighting is quite a recent development. They produce a bright clear light at a very low wattage. Over the past decade or so many homeowners and businesses have begun converting to LED in order to reduce the running cost of bigger and better Christmas displays. However, the tradition of putting up lights at Christmas predates the invention of LED Lighting by many hundreds of years. So what did we use before LED Lights?
For this we have to cast our attention right back to the middle of the seventeenth century, over a hundred years before the first electric light bulb was invented by Thomas Edison. Back then it was customary to use candles instead of lights, but the practice would not become popularized for another two centuries. The candles were attached to the Christmas tree using melted wax or pins. By the early twentieth century they were inserted into small glass lanterns instead, making them a better resemblance of their modern LED counterparts.
Switching to candles is certainly a good way of saving money as they obviously don't use any electricity, but having naked flames around the house is quite dangerous. Nowadays people like to run their lights for the entire month of December. If you were planning on using candles, for safety reasons, you would have to wait until the day before Christmas to set them up.
Before they became associated with Christmas, some of the first electric fairy lights were used in the Savoy Theatre in London, which became the first building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity in 1881. On the 25thNovember 1882, the inventor of the incandescent light bulb, Joseph Sawn, supplied the theatre with 1,200 'fairy lights' for the opening night of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. The energy requirements for the lights was so demanding that they had to be powered using an 120 horsepower generator, which ultimately proved to be too small to handle the task. A set of LED Lights would have been a welcome relief at the time, but unfortunately they wouldn't be available for almost another century.
The first known example of electric lights being used in a Christmas themed context did not appear until 1882 when Edward H. Johnson, an associate of Thomas Edison, used them to illuminate his own personal Christmas tree. At the time he was the vice president of the Edison Electric Lighting Company and had the 80 hand-wired, red, white and blue walnut sized bulbs specially made for his home in New York. The story was ignored by local newspapers. Nowadays huge LED Light based illumination ceremonies receive plenty of news coverage.
In 1895 President Grover Cleveland sponsored the first electrically lit Christmas tree in the White House. For the time it was exceptionally large and used over a hundred lights. The same tree now uses thousands of energy saving LED Lights.
General Electric Co. began producing the first electric Christmas tree lights on a commercial scale in the same year. From that point onwards they became an increasingly familiar sight in homes across the world. The first examples of outdoor displays, like the kind at the Rockefeller Centre in New York, did not appear until the first and second decade of the twentieth century. Overtime Christmas lights have moved away from being attached exclusively to our Christmas trees and have grown to include the entire interior and exterior of our homes.
The arrival of energy efficient LED Lighting means that modern Christmas light displays are getting even bigger and more ambitious than ever before. It also means they can be run at a fraction of the cost.
One of the best Christmas trees I have seen this year is in the new St Pancras terminal in London where there is a wonderful tree constructed entirely of Lego.
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