The Wizard Of Your Christmas Tree

PrintPrintEmailEmail

What did people use to decorate Christmas trees before that? For one thing, glass candle cups, usually colored and multifaceted; for another, metal candle lanterns, with isinglass or glass sides. But the main source of tree lighting was the bare candlestick, which was messy and hazardous. People tried rope candles, which twisted around the branches, but proper attachment was difficult and time-consuming. They tried sticking a pin through the bottom of a branch and fastening the candle to it. They tried pinning little round trays with pinholes to branches to catch the dripping wax. And they tried candleholders with clay-ball counterweights that looped around under the branches. “In 1887,” writes Robert Brenner, author of Christmas Through the Decades, “they invented a clip-on candle holder which enabled people to get the candle way out on the tip of the branches so that there would be less chance of a fire.”

Electric lights nonetheless met initial resistance. “People were very fearful of them,” Brenner says, so “the first tree lights were advertised as electric candles.” Associating them with a known commodity, the advertisements stressed safety and dependability and said nothing about their charms or technological novelty.

The public knew what to expect from candles. In many homes a pail of water was placed near the tree in case a branch caught fire. Also, when the tree was lit, everyone gathered around to watch it. “We’re talking about a tree being lit for half an hour at most,” notes Brenner. Families kept their newly cut trees in unheated parlors so they would stay green and moist, to reduce the fire hazard.

The first electric lamps, with carbonized bamboo filaments, were dangerously hot, a condition alleviated with the coming of tungsten filaments. Moreover, people at the end of the nineteenth century were still fearful of electrical currents. Hardly a week went by without a newspaper account of a death by accidental electrocution in an American city. Yet Christmas lights won the hearts of Americans fairly quickly. In 1895 the White House Christmas tree was festooned with multicolored electric lights for the first time, and by 1903 General Electric was offering pre-wired Christmas lights (earlier they had to be individually hand-wired).

By the 1920s the Christmas-lighting industry was growing rapidly. In 1925, 15 manufacturers formed a trade organization called NOMA (the National Outfit Manufacturers Association), whose members soon dominated the market. Outdoor lights came along around the same time. Styles and tastes changed as people sought new effects. Figural lights—molds of Santa Claus, elves, reindeer, and the like—were big early in the twentieth century. All-blue lights were the thing during the Depression years, making a very dramatic effect, especially with soap flakes on the boughs to resemble snow.

Candle-shaped bubble lights became a fad in the late 1940s; they were filled with a fluid with a low boiling point so that small light bulbs at the bottom could generate enough heat to get the bubbles rising, but they never replaced the standard cone-shaped light. The era of aluminum trees with Color Wheels, rotating multicolored floodlights that illuminated the tree, came and went. In the 1950s tree trimmers fell in love with miniature lights, first made in Italy, a taste that began to pall at the end of the eighties, when the traditional cone-shaped bulb began its comeback. In the 1970s people looked for new colors, like pink and turquoise.

According to trend watchers such as Bill Nelson, a Tennessean who maintains a Web site called www.oldchristmaslights.com, traditional bulbs are beginning to appear more frequently in outdoor displays, replacing the miniature white lights that have been in vogue for almost two decades. Nostalgia is coming in, and even bubble lights are coming back.

Electric Christmas lights remain a largely American custom. Many Europeans still prefer candles and light up their trees as a special event, while Americans, as Brenner puts it, “turn on the tree when they get home from work and turn it off when they go to bed.” Americans seek what Edison delivered in 1880: a fairyland of lights, a magic show, a technology devoted to decoration.

One of the early clues to how Americans would take to Christmas lights came in Mrs. J. E. H. Gordon’s 1891 book Decorative Electricity. She wanted people to use artificial lighting with personal style, and she expressed the hope of many Americans that progress would be not just about utility but about enhancing life in small details as well as in grand ways. (Historians will note that her homey vision of clean, well-lighted places beyond the primitive starkness of frontier life came at the moment when Frederick Jackson Turner announced the closing of the frontier.) “If Mrs. Gordon’s ideas were carried out,” a reviewer commented in Electrical World magazine, “the perfection of lighting in our parlors and dining rooms would be reached. We should be conscious of agreeable illuminations, but never find the lamps intrusive.”