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The History of Christmas Lights

Image credit: Julia Bujalski

Humble Beginnings

You may be surprised to learn that Christmas lights did not introduce the concept of using light as a Christmas tree decoration. That tradition is, in fact, much older than electricity itself! For many years, people used candles to light up their Christmas trees. The tradition dates back to 16th century Germany, where legend has it that the Protestant leader Martin Luther was the first to add lighted candles to a Christmas tree. It is said that he was walking home one night when he was struck by the beauty of the stars winking among the evergreens and wanted to recapture the scene for his family.

In the mid-1800s, Queen Victoria and her husband Albert helped make the tradition of the Christmas tree popular outside of Germany. Families who could afford it would often decorate their trees with candles to symbolize the light of Jesus and to help brighten the dark days of winter. In most cases, the candles would be lit for just a few minutes while the family gathered to watch the pretty display, but the practice was, of course, a considerable fire hazard.

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The Invention of Christmas Lights

In 1882, Edward Johnson, a friend and partner of Thomas Edison, had the idea to replace the candles with a string of colored electric lights. The first Christmas lights featured eight bulky, pear-shaped bulbs on a single wire. Johnson debuted his Christmas lights later that year in the parlor of his townhouse at 136 East 36th Street in New York City. He hand-wired a number of red, white, and blue lights and strung them on a Christmas tree. Then he put the whole thing on a rotating base, placed it directly in front of a street-facing window, and called a reporter. Between the newspaper article and the mesmerized passerby, Johnson’s idea was successfully publicized, but it didn’t catch on immediately due to price. At the time, electricity was still quite new and a set of eight lightbulbs like the one Johnson originally created would have cost around $80 in today’s dollars!


It was President Cleveland who helped popularize Christmas lights when he used them to decorate a Christmas tree in the White House in 1895. In the following years, electricity became commonplace and lightbulbs became cheaper and more accessible, allowing the American people to embrace the tradition of Christmas lights. By 1914, a 16-foot string of Christmas lights cost $1.75. By the 1920s, General Electric was offering affordable, pre-assembled Christmas lights that were easily accessible in stores across the country. And by the 1930s, the pretty colored bulbs and cones could be seen everywhere during the holidays!

Christmas Lights Today

Today, the popularity of Christmas lights has only increased. They are used to decorate Christmas trees in homes all over the world and they adorn nearly 80 million American homes each year. Over 150 million sets of Christmas lights are sold in America yearly! In fact, they are so popular that it’s estimated that Christmas lights consume up to 6 percent of the nation’s electrical load each December. The current record for the largest number of Christmas lights at a home (lawn included) is 601,736 bulbs!

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