How Christmas Tree Lights Evolved from Major to Mild Fire Hazard

Before our Christmas tree lighting needs were taken care of with $25 and a trip to Target, creating the atmosphere meant placing candles—wax towers topped with fire—onto seasonal kindling. Think it's frightening now when your dog tugs a branch? Just imagine your living room bursting into flames for the sake of Christmas cheer.

Luckily, holiday enthusiasts didn't waste much time transforming the invention of the light bulb in 1979 into a holiday decoration. In fact, Edison himself strung the first set of electric lights in 1880 when he festooned his New Jersey laboratory that December. Two years later, a colleague brought the idea to the tree. While a partner at the Edison Illumination Company, Edward H. Johnson decided the fire hazard holiday tradition needed an upgrade. So he hand-wired a string and circled it around his own tannenbaum. If that wasn't impressive enough, just three years after the incandescent lightbulb was invented, he also made the tree spin on a box like a lighted ballerina.

Here's an account of the display in the Detroit Post and Tribune:

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. The result was a continuous twinkling of dancing colors, red, white, blue, white, red, blue—all evening. I need not tell you that the scintillating evergreen was a pretty sight—one can hardly imagine anything prettier.

Cool right? The problem was that electricity was not yet ubiquitous, and people were freaked out about bringing it into the home. Johnson's idea didn't make a splash until after 1895, when holiday-loving Pres Grover Cleveland asked that the White House family tree be covered with hundreds of multi-colored lights. The request gave the electrically-lit tree some cred.

But there still wasn't a ready-to-drape string you could pick up at the store. At the turn of the century, the Edison Decorative and Miniature Lamp Department of the General Electric Company ran advertisements in Scientific American and the Saturday Evening Post for "No Danger! Miniature lamps for Christmas trees." But the wiring had to be done by hand, making a twinkling tree run you about $2,000 in today's money—not everyone's idea of a wise investment for less than a month's enjoyment.

Slowly but surely, however, holiday spectacles emerged beyond the homes of inventors and rich people. Large stores began erecting light-covered Christmas trees for public display around 1900.

General Electric took the hint, and by Christmas 1903, the company offered pre-assembled kits of 8, 16, and 24 carbon-filament lights. The 24-light kit cost $12—the average weekly wage at the time. The lights came in clear, red, yellow, blue, and green. Those with color were hand-dipped in ink.

So the lights were on the shelves, but they still needed an advocate to encourage more average to buy them. Enter Albert Sadacca, who was born into a novelty lighting company family business. As a teenager in 1917 he suggested they stock strings of lights for the holidays. By the 1920's, Sadacca launched the NOMA Electric Company, which specialized in the December-themed strings. People bought his lights, and up until 1965, his company was the world's biggest Christmas lights purveyor.

This year's national Christmas tree in Washington D.C. was outfitted with 65 sets of programmable LED lights provided by General Electric—the company Edison founded in 1890. Although the long-time Christmas tree was knocked down by a wind storm last year (don't worry, they replaced it), at least we know this one won't be consumed by a decoration-induced fire.

Image: National Park Service