How the Christmas Tree Got Its Lights

A short technological history of a living room icon

(Library of Congress)

Like so many American traditions, the Christmas tree emerged from the hearty jumble of 19th-century immigrant custom and religious observance, spun up in the post-Civil War national rebuilding project, and became industrialized and commercialized in the great acceleration of modern times.

From its 1840s incarnation as a small plant placed on a table so that Kriss Kringle would have a place to put presents, the Christmas tree grew into a particular kind of technological spectacle. The lights in our trees might seem commonplace or trite, but once upon a time (and a time not long ago, in a place very close to home), they became a symbol of progress and the power of electricity to make light without flames.

We don't often think about it this way, but the modern Christmas tree is a fundamentally technological object. Those strings of lights meant something once upon a time. And they did work in the world, too. Christmas trees became part of how electricity was converted from a dark and mysterious force that occasionally descended from the heavens to kill people into a safe and domesticated product that lit up your living room.

Old world German protestants had decked their trees since the early 17th-century with "roses cut out of many-coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold foil, sweets, &c." By the first few decades of the 1800s, the practices had spread throughout western Europe and, according to Penne Restad's book, Christmas in America, a history, to Pennsylvania, too. By 1821, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania resident named Matthew Zahm could write, "Sally & our Thos. & Wm. Hensel was out for Christmas trees, on the hill at Kendrick's farm." In 1832, a German professor at Harvard put "7 dozen wax tapers, gilded egg cups, paper corncucpiae filled with comfits, lozenges and barley sugar."

A well-decorated tree could inspire "awe and delight," but its decorations were homemade and homey. They remained that way until the post-Civil War era, when a couple of important modifications were made to the tree. First, they adopted store-bought ornaments as Restad put it:

Rather than venture into the snowy woods to cut Christmas trees, Americans bought them from tree dealers. As quickly as they adopted the tree custom, they abandoned the tradition of homemade ornaments, toys, gifts, and went shopping for them. They sent Christmas cards with ready-written sentiments in place of handwritten letters to friends, and sang carols created only years before. Taken together, these acts and rituals made the modern Christmas seem a timeless tradition of American home life.

By 1910, the growing, transporting, and selling of Christmas trees had taken on the industrial cast of the times.


But Restad's account leaves out a key progressive component of the modern American Christmas: the electrically lit tree. At the same time that this country was remaking Christmas, its citizens had become obsessed with electricity. David Nye has charted the rise of "the electrical sublime," beginning in the early 1880s, and the Christmas tree was a part of the long series of spectacles that seemed to shine light on a better future.

Beyond the obvious utility of electricity in virtually every sector of the economy and in domestic life, the new forms of lighting transformed the appearance of the world. Dramatic demonstrations of arc lights began in the late 1870s and seemed to offer visible proof of the coming changes.
These two stories converge around this tree in 1882, which sat in the home of Edward Johnson, one of Thomas Edison's associates in Manhattan.
Just three years after Edison's famed success in creating a better lightbulb, Johnson married the new electrical mania with the emergent modern Christmas. He replaced the traditional candle-lit tree with one lit by electricity. Though it may not look like much to us now, the effect at the time was apparently quite spectacular, according to a contemporary newspaper report.
I need not tell you that the scintillating evergreen was a pretty sight--one can hardly imagine anything prettier... It was brilliantly lighted with many colored globes about as large as an English walnut and was turning some six times a minute on a little pine box. There were eighty lights in all encased in these dainty glass eggs, and about equally divided between white, red and blue. As the tree turned, the colors alternated, all the lamps going out and being relit at every revolution.

One thing I've always loved about this passage is that the idea of applying the word "blink" to describe how "all the lamps going out and being relit" looked hadn't come into common usage. According to a quick word frequency search, it wasn't really until about 1910 that "lights blinking" started to become a popular phrase. The other thing to note is how much of the spectacle is actually about the control of the light, not its mere presence. The precision of electricity was one of its defining properties.


Two years later we find the New York Times reporting that Johnson had taken his show on the road and was attempting to patent the blink. "The mechanism by which the shifting [Ed: blinking] of the lights is made has been patented by Mr. Johnson, who believes that its use will be invaluable in scenic effects," the paper wrote. "The changes can be made with clockwork regularity, while the field for combinations and effects is almost unlimited."

Sounds better than even 3D TV, right? By 1895, the new, modern tradition had reached all the way to the White House, when it was canonized by Grover Cleveland. Of course, only a small percentage of people had electricity in their homes at the time, and if
is to be believed, it wasn't until 1903 that simple electric Christmas tree lights were widely available.

There have obviously been a lot of improvements through the years. Lighting schemes are more complex. Newer bulbs generate more brightness per watt; LED lights use radically less electricity, etc. But the basic idea of the electrically sublime celebration of the industrialized American Christmas remains the same. It's a technological tradition that should remind you about the wonder of electricity in our lives, and that during your grandparent's parent's lives, it would have been nearly unthinkable.

So, as you sip your hot cocoa, try not to think of the Christmas tree as a kitsch artifact of another era. Reach a little bit deeper into history and try to recall people's fear and trembling upon seeing their first electrified trees. Here's the recollection of textile worker Alma Covel, for example, interviewed in the 1930s about her childhood:

I'll never forget how scared I was when Pa took me to the first Christmas tree there in our little church. That tree just jumped at me as I went in, it was so bright and wonderful; the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life. When my name was called to come up for my gift it about scared me to death. 'Stead of going on up like the others had, I just clung to Pa's legs and wouldn't budge. Pa had to go up with me, holding on to my hand, and was he out done. I ain't shy like that no more, folks are always saying, 'that Zelma, ain't she the boldest thing'.