Christmas lights: History and evolution

Authored By Ashley Hopkins

An almost universally recognized symbol of the holidays, Christmas lights decorate trees, mantels, porches, stairways, shrubs, mailboxes and myriad other objects in the home and yard each November, December and January. Admiring them has become as much of a tradition as putting them up, as many families enjoy cruising through neighborhoods known for their elaborate holiday light displays to admire homeowners’ handiwork and creativity.

According to the Library of Congress, the same man who gave us the light bulb-Thomas Edison-also gave us our beloved Christmas lights.

“He used 80 lights connected together on a wire to decorate a Christmas tree in New York,” J.Ed. Marston, vice president of marketing at EPB, said. “It was an advertising stunt to promote his invention.”

This was not the first instance of using lights to decorate for Christmas, though, as candles were used on trees prior-but obviously, electric lights proved to be much safer and eventually led to the ability to purchase illumination of varying colors.

But Christmas lights weren’t accessible to the general public for several more years. General Electric had purchased a patent for Edison’s light string invention by 1900, but the price for a string of them in those days was outrageous-several hundred dollars in today’s money.

“But, by 1925, more than a dozen companies were manufacturing Christmas lights,” Marston said. “Costs eventually came down to levels that more families could afford.”

And so began the numerous displays that commemorate the holiday season each year.

Incandescent bulbs have been the norm for a century now, though they have gone through many forms. The larger bulbs of the early years of Christmas lights gave way to smaller ones in the past 30 or so years, and the basic light-bulbs-on-a-green-wire have transitioned to icicle lights, net lights, snowflake lights, lights on white wires and literally hundreds of other options.

Christmas lights and the environment

-LEDs use less energy and produce less heat, so it may make sense to transition to them as older lights need to be replaced.

-Big-box retailers often promote Christmas light recycling around this time of year by giving discounts on new LED light purchases in exchange for old light strings.

But the times, they are a-changin’.

“While incandescent bulbs are still the dominant electric Christmas light after more than a century, LED lights are becoming more and more popular,” Marston said. “They use a fraction of the energy that incandescent bulbs use and produce far less heat. They’re also typically made of plastic, which makes them more durable than glass.”

As things always are when revolutionary forms of technology emerge, LEDs are rather pricey right now in comparison to incandescent lights. But experts say the expense may be worth it over time.

“LED lights may last longer than incandescent mini bulbs,” Marston said. “Additional savings could be realized since LED bulbs use up to 90 percent less energy, but on the whole, lighting makes up only a fractional amount of your overall power usage-unless you really go all out with your holiday lights and other decorations that require electric power.”

EPB officials recommend transitioning to LEDs slowly over time, not tossing incandescents all at once if they’re still working. However, each incandescent string needs to be carefully checked each season for cracks or splits that expose wiring. If those issues are found, absolutely replace the strand with a string of LEDs.

But be wary of mixing and matching LEDs with your existing incandescents. Although you can string LED and C7 or C9 globe incandescent lights together, don’t plug LED and mini incandescents together.

Whereas no more than three strings of incandescent lights should be plugged into each other at one time for safety, you can string many more strands of LED lights together safely, as long as you are following the manufacturer’s instructions. Click here for more information on safety and holiday lights.

John Pless is the public relations coordinator at EPB.

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