Holiday Traditions: Why We Decorate With Christmas Lights
Displaying lights during the Christmas season is as old as the holiday itself. Used in a variety of ways and for several different reasons, light was just as important in the early years of holiday celebrations as it is today. From the inspiring symbol during the winter solstice to a decorative way to brighten up our Christmas trees or outdo neighbors with extravagant illumination, light has always played a major role in the majestic feeling of the holidays. Before you start stringing up Christmas lights around trees, roofs and gutters, learn some cool facts about why we decorate with Christmas lights.
Pagan Christmas Origins
The earliest use of lights during Christmas time predates the celebration of Christmas. Winter solstice traditions in northern European societies such as Scandinavian and Germanic cultures used fire during their midwinter festivals. Preparing for shorter days and longer nights, pagan rituals such as Yule logs, bonfires and candles symbolized the rebirth of the sun, turning night into day and the dawn of the New Year. Symbols of hope and celebration, it isn't hard to see why similar uses of light were intertwined with religious celebrations and Christmas festivals.
Early Christian Symbolism
As Christianity spread throughout Europe, pagan traditions were incorporated into established Christian traditions. Winter solstice celebrations and end-of-the-year feasts weren't difficult to adopt into the Christmas season. As always, fires and candles were necessary in the winter for heat and light. Christianity merely sought to redefine these lights by connecting them with the symbols that were already an important part of Christmas, such as the Star of Bethlehem. The use of light during winter didn't change for practical purposes, but the meaning behind it did.
Thomas Edison's Involvement
The invention of electricity changed the way people used lights at Christmas forever. It doesn't come as a surprise that Edison was involved in some way with Christmas lights, but in this case his involvement wasn't as direct. In fact, an executive at Edison's company, Edward H. Johnson, is credited as being the father of the electric Christmas tree, stringing up a tree and displaying it in his home in New York City during the holiday season of 1882. Johnson was quickly emulated, most notably by President Grover Cleveland at the White House in the Christmas of 1895.
Candles On Christmas Trees
Long before Johnson strung up his tree with electric lights, Christmas trees were actually lit with candles. Many inventors even spent time developing ways to arrange candles on trees in a way that wouldn't start a fire. Unfortunately, Christmas tree fires were fairly common, and electrical lights in the early days were also known to start fires in homes. Safer bulbs were made available by the first decades of the twentieth century at more affordable prices, giving home decorators peace of mind and expanding the use of lights from the Christmas tree to the outdoor display.
Christmas Lights Today
Christmas lights are such a big part of the holiday season. The early light strings illuminating the neighborhood streets a little less than a half-century ago don't come close to the wild designs of light today. From recreational uses in electricity-draining displays around neighborhoods to a modern light show in the big city or the illumination of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, the use of light during the Christmas season has diverted in most ways from its original intent. However, the simple use of Christmas window candles or tasteful Christmas tree designs makes all the difference when we're trying to create a nostalgic look and give the gift of light to others.