A Quick History of Christmas Lights: Bright Beginnings

Updated May 18, 2021
Christmas Tree Lights

Every year you light up your life and yard with an array of beautifully colored lights. But do you know where the tradition began? Get an interesting overview of Christmas lights, from why they were invented to how they are used today.

The Fiery Precursor to Christmas Lights

Do you know what doesn't go well with trees? Open flames. Before there were electric lights, people would light their Christmas trees with candles. The candles were either attached with pins or adhered to the branches with melted wax. According to the Library of Congress, this practice often led to house fires. However, a few ingenious inventors solved this problem.

The Beginnings 1880: Edison's Light String Creation

Thomas Edison, who created the light bulb, quickly figured out a way to string lights together in 1880. According to the Library of Congress, he created a very simple strand of white lights and hung them around the Menlo Park Laboratory. While these are not the typical Christmas lights you see today, they were the first actual display of lights for the holiday season.

1882 Johnson's Multi-Colored Christmas Lights

While Edison might have created the first actual light display, credit goes to Edward Johnson when it comes to the lights you use on your tree itself. In 1882, Edward Johnson, an associate of Thomas Edison, created a string of 80 red, white, and blue bulbs. He wound the string of lights around the revolving tree, creating a picturesque light show. In fact, W.A. Croffut from the Detroit Post and Tribune wrote, "It was brilliantly lighted with...eighty lights in all encased in these dainty glass eggs, and about equally divided between white, red and blue. One can hardly imagine anything prettier."

1895 Lighting Up the White House

Though Johnson created the invention of Christmas lights in 1882, it wasn't a trend that people were fond of. Sure, their house wasn't going to burn down as easily, but electricity itself was something seen as new and a bit ominous. Therefore, it took some help from a president to get this trend to take off. In 1895, President Grover Cleveland added electric Christmas lights to the tree in the White House. This important moment in Christmas light history created widespread interest in a newer method of holiday decorating.

1903 GE Twinkle and Fairy Lights

In 1903, Thomas Edison began offering preassembled kits for Christmas trees through General Electric. Many large businesses began using brightly lit trees to attract customers during the holiday shopping season. When the public saw these trees, they sometimes referred to the Christmas lights as either "fairy lights" or "twinkle lights." However, these lights were expensive and typically only available for the wealthy. While the average worker only made 22 cents per hour at this time, the first Christmas lights cost $12 for a set of 24 lights.

Light Bulb Hanging

1917 Christmas Tree Lights for the Masses

Some invent the wheel and others make it better. Johnson might have invented Christmas lights, but Albert Sadacca was the one that made it better. Why? Because Sadacca found a way to make Christmas lights affordable for the masses.

According to the Library of Congress, Albert Sadacca deserves credit for making Christmas tree lights widely available to the public. In 1917, after learning about the New York City fire in 1917 from candles on a Christmas tree, the 15-year old entrepreneur convinced his parents to use the bulbs from their business making novelty birdcage lights to create safe and affordable strings of Christmas lights. The idea got off to a slow start but quickly picked up steam once they decided to paint the bulbs different colors instead of selling plain white lights.

Later, Albert Sadacca and his brothers Henri and Leon began National Outfit Manufacturer's Association (NOMA) Electric Company to manufacture and distribute Christmas lights. Until the 1960s, their company was the largest supplier of Christmas lights in the world with inventions like Bubble-Lits. However, the company filed for bankruptcy in 1966.

1965 Mini GE Lights

After the bankruptcy of NOMA, GE could once again enter the scene and take the Christmas light game overseas with Merry Midget lights. This meant cheaper Christmas lights available to more families. Therefore, people could not only light up their Christmas trees, but their houses as well.

1977 LED Christmas Lights and Beyond

In 1966, James Biard and Gary Pittman patented the LED light, which is more energy-efficient. The red LEDs were patented in 1977, according to Smithsonian Magazine. From there, other color Christmas lights started to be created. The invention of LED lights took the Christmas tree light to a whole new level.

Christmas lights on the street

Christmas Lights Today

Today, Christmas lights are available in prices and styles to fit almost any holiday decorating need. You can have elegant white lights, traditional multi-colored lights, or decorative strands in single colors such as blue and red. There are also animated lights that blink, flicker, and appear to move in sync with music.

The History of Christmas Lights

Beyond just making Christmas trees beautiful, Christmas lights have a long history. Today, in addition to Christmas lights on houses and trees, you can find holiday light sculptures available to decorate your home with snowmen, candy canes, Santa Claus, and other winter-related themes. There are contests with large cash prizes for the homeowner who can create the most impressive Christmas lights history display in many communities.

A Quick History of Christmas Lights: Bright Beginnings