Christmas Lights Around The World
PUBLISHED: 16:16 03 December 2010 | UPDATED: 16:21 20 February 2013
Every year the festive mood lights up our towns and villages, photographer Gary Wallis investigates the origins of these sparkling displays.
In order to plot the history of outdoor Christmas lights, or fairy lights as we call them in the UK, we must first understand the story of the Christmas tree.
Historic records detail that the first Christmas tree appeared in 1510 at the town of Riga in Latvia. By the mid 16th century towns in Germany were holding Christmas markets where gifts and food were on sale. At these fairs bakers sold wax ornaments and shaped gingerbread that people purchased to hang as ornaments on their trees. So the early origin of the Christmas tree is planted (pardon the pun!) firmly in Germany. Tinsel was also invented there in around 1610 and during the 17th century wealthy Germans were illuminating their trees with candles. The candles were held in place by melted wax or pins and obviously posed a fairly serious fire risk.
The Christmas tree found its way to Britain with the Hanoverian kings. In 1846 a drawing of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert standing around a Christmas tree appeared in the Illustrated London News. It was fashionable to copy the royals and a festive tree soon became a popular Christmas decoration. The fashion-conscious east coast of America also latched onto the practice and so the story of Christmas lights moves across to the United States.
The modern age of electric lighting began when Thomas Edison developed the incandescent light bulb in 1879. Three years later in 1882, Edward H Johnson, a colleague of Edison, created the first known electrically illuminated Christmas tree. He commissioned 80 red, white and blue lights which were hand wired onto a tree and invited the local press to witness his patriotic display at his home on 5th Avenue, New York City they declined. However, the story was reported in the Detroit Post and Tribune and the era of the electrically illuminated tree had arrived. In 1895 the US President, Grover Cleveland, sponsored a display of over 100 multi-coloured lamps in the White House and by 1900 large stores were using illuminated trees to attract customers. Then in 1903 the American Eveready Company launched the first true Christmas light set which included screw-in bulbs and a plug for the wall socket.
However, in the early 20th century electric tree lights were still very much the exception and candles the rule. Then in 1917 a tragic fire in New York City was attributed to the traditional method of using candles. This prompted 15-year-old Albert Sadacca to convince his parents, who ran a novelty business, to manufacture a string of safe electric lights specifically designed for a tree. The first year started slowly with the sale of just 100 strings of lights, but business soon boomed. Albert eventually became the head of a major multi-million dollar organisation, NOMA Electric Company, that until 1965 was the worlds largest Christmas lighting business. By the 1930s tree decoration using candles had been completely replaced by safer electrical lighting.
Moving on to outdoor festive lighting displays, the first examples were recorded in San Diego in 1904 and New York City in 1912. True outdoor lights were not available to the public until 1927-8 when General Electric launched their new product on the market. Along with Edison Electric Distribution the two companies sponsored neighbourhood decorating with color-light competitions to stimulate sales. Over time their strategy worked and gradually many communities were holding the competitions over the festive season.
By the mid-1950s the trend had established itself and households in America had adopted the custom of decorating their homes with outdoor Christmas lights. The practice of outlining the entire house with lights became popular during the 1960s, with particular emphasis on illuminating the eaves.
Since then this North American habit has spread gradually around the world. In the UK the trend to decorate both public buildings and areas as well as private homes has increased over the past 20 years or so. While we keep warm with a hot toddy or mulled wine, in Australia and New Zealand they sit on the veranda under festive lights and sip on a cold beer during long summer evenings.
Opinion is sometimes divided on outdoor Christmas lights particularly when displays seem to go over the top. However, for me, festive outdoor lights provide a warm and welcoming sight when the sun sets before 4pm and the winter nights are long, dark and cold.