The Story Behind the Tradition of Hanging Christmas Lights

Truth of the day: the holidays just wouldn’t be “the holidays” without people working together to uphold its oh-so merry traditions. Like good soldiers, we rock those ugly sweaters, we glaze those Christmas hams, and we tie those massive Douglas firs onto the roofs of our cars.

Sure, those yuletide chores may be invigorating, but they sure can take a lot out of us! So much, in fact, we’ve literally stopped in the middle of a midnight present wrapping session to ask ourselves: Just WHY do we do this whole ‘Christmas thing’ anyway?!

The short answer is to spread joy, of course, but there is a long answer that corresponds to some of the more bizarre holiday traditions, too. Today, we are going to address what is quite possibly the most familiar, yet most perplexing one of all—hanging Christmas lights.

man hangs Christmas lights on treesWikimedia Commons

Like modern-day Santa Claus, there is nothing inherently religious about the tradition. Lit trees and houses don’t really have anything to do with the meaning of Christmas, right? Honestly, we never questioned the practice too deeply. That was until we learned the real history behind those glittering lights…

How a revolutionary invention helped give Christmas a new look

As it turns out, there is quite an intriguing reason as to why we risk our safety to tack lights onto our homes in the days leading up to Christmas—and it has everything to do with Thomas Edison. That’s right, the Thomas Edison!

You see, back in 1880, right around the time that the great American inventor had secured the patent for his incandescent light bulb, he made the wise decision to illuminate the outside of his Menlo Park laboratory with his new invention.

Edison did this for two reasons: 1) to get people in the holiday spirit and 2) to introduce his stunning invention to the masses. Unsurprisingly, everyone was dazzled by Edison’s ingenuity, so dazzled in fact, his associate, Edward Johnson, saw an opportunity for the lightbulb to diversify.

In 1882, Johnson began marketing strings of Edison’s bulbs for Christmas trees. The original lights came in a red, white, and blue combo (how patriotic!) and were well-equipped with 80 electric bulbs.

It took years for consumers to finally catch on to the new innovation, but when the lights finally got down to a reasonable price in 1914, those folks traded in their dangerous Christmas tree candles for the revolutionary invention.

It’s a given that Thomas Edison had a huge impact on the development of our country, but who knew he had such a big hand in making Christmas… well…. Christmas?

To learn even more about the history of this colorful tradition, including how much folks shelled out for these first strings of lights, be sure to watch the video below. We’ll never look at our trendy—and cheap!—LEDs the same way again!

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this fascinating nugget of holiday history. Did you know that Thomas Edison popularized Christmas lights? Do you use old-school lights or energy-efficient LEDs? Have you ever used candles to light your tree?