The magic behind Christmas lights
Dec 26, 2018 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
We’ve chatted about all sorts of holiday traditions during the last five years: the Advent Calendar, fruitcake, letters to Santa, Christmas cards, and Christmas tree ornaments. This year let’s dive into the magic behind Christmas lights. While the beautiful evergreen has been a symbol of hope and everlasting life for some time, the first person to bring light into the mix was none other than Martin Luther. Inspired by the beauty of trees in the moonlight, his evergreen was lit with a collection of candles. I don’t know about you, but there’s something extra special about candlelight. The glow, the dancing flame – it’s cozy and comforting.
Thanks to Martin Luther, candlelit trees became an annual tradition in Germany and for generations this practice stayed close to its roots. But by the 1800s Britain’s Queen Victoria was making waves in fashion, in leadership, and in Christmas decor! In 1848, The Illustrated London News published a print of the royal family’s candlelit tree. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, both of German heritage, shared their ancestry with an eager nation. Folks were keen to take up a decorating cause inspired by the royals and, in most families, the lighting of the Christmas tree was an honor bestowed upon the patriarch. Across the land, grandfathers and fathers ushered in some of the magic of the holiday season.
As treasured as these moments were, as you can imagine, introducing a live flame to an evergreen can be a dangerous combination. In this day and age, if you zoomed out of the tree close-up, you’d see many buckets of water ready for emergencies. Because of these precautions, most families would only light their tree on Christmas Eve. But soon, families could enjoy the magic of the season every evening. About 40 years after the candle’s popularity soared in Britain, the first Christmas lights debuted. Patented by Thomas Edison’s pal, Edward Johnson, this first strand was rather patriotic – colored with red, white, and blue bulbs. Within a decade, this dazzling invention proved so spectacular President Grover Cleveland even had the White House tree draped in electric bulbs. Most American families however, still unsure about this crazy thing called “electricity”, didn’t welcome the lights into their homes until the Jazz Age.
The next big advancement in Christmas light technology came in 1966 with the invention of the LED bulb. Discovered by James Biard and Gary Pittman at Texas Instruments, the development soon caught the attention of General Electric employee Nick Holonyak. With Nick’s efforts, the LED produced its first visible light. About ten years later, the LED transformed into what we know and love today – a multicolored, twinkling showcase of light and wonder. Like most things in life, things came full circle when, in 2006, a patent was issued for a flame simulating LED. Now Martin Luther’s candlelit trees were safe for all to enjoy (water buckets no longer needed).
For me, seeing lights twinkle against the evening sky encourages me to slow down and pause. I hope that for all of us, this holiday season brings with it a time for reflection and rejoicing. The story of the Christmas light echoes one of the bigger lessons taught during this special time of year: when you treasure the simple joys in life, amazing things happen!