Why do we hang Christmas lights?

The history of Christmas lights is the story of how Thomas Edison and his team made electric lighting more appealing to the public.

They glitter like stars in the velveteen sky.

But rather than be sprinkled across the heavens, they dot the Earth below, outlining our homes, wrapped around trees and shaped into our most beloved characters.

Christmas lights have a magical appeal, and one that was used as part of a larger effort in the late 19th century to make electric indoor lighting more appealing.

And so, the story of Christmas lights is the story of electric lighting, and how business, brotherhood and brilliant ideas helped pave the way for this holiday tradition.

By the flickering light

"Lighting in general – and of course, holiday lights – are so special because they beautify everything," said Kathleen Carlucci, director of the Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park, NJ.


Long before electric Christmas lights entered the holiday scene, people in the 19th century were already using other lighting methods to decorate their homes during the holidays.

According to Carlucci, people would place candles on their Christmas trees to illuminate them.

"Of course, that's so dangerous," Carlucci said. "And so, the electrical lighting is a much better option."

However, it was an option that people didn’t warm up to at first.

A shadow, cast

"People were still a little wary of electrical lighting because they were afraid of it," Carlucci said. "It was dangerous if it wasn't installed properly."

People were accustomed to the age-old sources of light: the sun, the fullest full moon and fire (which they harnessed in various implements, such as candles).


"Just imagine people went to bed when the sun went down, and then they rose when the sun rose," Carlucci said. "So, their days were much shorter."

According to Carlucci, by the time Thomas Edison perfected the incandescent light bulb in 1879, the concept of using electricity to illuminate a space was still quite alien to most people.

"People are frequently unsure of the unknown, something they're not familiar with," Carlucci said.

Their familiarity with Edison’s invention would eventually grow, largely thanks to a colleague of his who also happened to be an innovative businessman.

Barnum of brilliance

"Edison had a number of people who really believed in him, and that's really what carried him through," Carlucci said.

One of those people was Edward Johnson.

Johnson’s background was in the telegraph industry, and then in 1882, he became the vice president of the Edison Electrical Company.

"He really was a promoter of Thomas Edison and the different inventions that Edison came up with," said Carlucci.

"[Johnson] had a very interesting life," Carlucci added. "Just imagine being him, being right on the forefront, the cusp of all these amazing inventions and having a front-row seat."

It was a position Johnson didn’t take lightly.

Let there be light

When Johnson saw the potential of Edison’s incandescent light bulb amidst the public’s wary attitudes toward electric lighting, he came up with an idea to garner some positive publicity – and he did it by tying in the Christmas holiday.


"He lit his tree with about 80 red, white and blue lights," Carlucci said. "He actually had to hand-wire them. There was no such thing as tree lights, and so it was a long process for him."

But this long process paid off.

"It really gathered the attention of the local neighbors, and then different newspapers and people came to see the beautiful lights," Carlucci said.

"This was a great idea," added Carlucci. "It really promoted the safety of electric lighting and the possible and potential beauty of it."

Johnson’s stunt took a Christmas tradition and modernized it, all by replacing candles on Christmas trees with a string of Edison’s incandescent light bulbs.

It was just the beginning of what would become a Christmas and overall holiday tradition.


Even the highest office in the land took note in 1895, when President Grover Cleveland had the first Christmas tree in the White House lit with electric lighting. 

Countless homes would eventually follow suit in the decades to come, as electric grids were established around the nation and as more people became more comfortable with electricity.  

Bulbs and brotherhood

Johnson’s mission to promote Edison’s work via Christmas lights was one example of how the inventor’s colleagues supported him.

"Edison was known as a very inspiring person," Carlucci said. "And so, Edward Johnson followed Edison to his later work, and they would continue to work together for many years."

According to Carlucci, Edison had a deep belief in his own abilities, but having people who had other experiences that he did not have and who would support his efforts was tremendous.

"He had all these men on the periphery, outside of him helping to guide him, give support financially and otherwise," Carlucci said. "It was a matter of believing in the person."

And Johnson believed in Edison, helping catapult the inventor and his work to bring electricity into people’s homes.

A cosmic connection

In the 140 years since Johnson created the first Christmas tree lights, the practice of decorating with electric lights during the holidays has grown.

"Christmas tree lights are magical, as are all the holiday lights for all the different holidays that we celebrate around the world," Carlucci said.


What was merely a publicity stunt struck such a chord with people, as it used technology to link traditions of the past with those of the future – a cosmic connection, all wrapped up in a simple string of Christmas lights.

"When you're a child and you're looking at something like that, it's just the wonder, you know," Carlucci said. "And that's what a lot of the holidays are about – opening our eyes to wonder, enjoying the beauty of it all and sharing it with our families."