Sometime you can be aware of something without comprehending its significance. That describes my relationship with Christmas lights to a T. The Christmas lights of my youth don’t hold an important place my memories. I remember outside lights being much larger than present day bulbs. Smaller lights decorated the Christmas tree in our living room. More memorable was that the home we lived in longest during my childhood had a vast living room where the tree resided, but the fireplace was in the family room where the stockings were hung by the chimney with care. Each Christmas morning would find us around the tree opening gifts and forgetting about the stockings that were in another room. But when we remembered, it was like extending the Christmas joy a little longer.
Out in the world, holiday lights were just something that happened during a specific time of year, like the leaves changing colors in the autumn. Until one year at a youth shelter where I first did a practicum and later worked during graduate school.
On occasion, we took our teenage residents out. Often for a change of scenery like a park. Sometimes hiking. Perhaps to the movies if we could find a theater willing to donate admission. One year, we went to see Christmas lights. Our youth shelter van joined a line of cars snaking through a well-appointed neighborhood far from the neighborhoods most of our teens grew up. I was amazed by the number of hoses with lovely and sometimes elaborate light displays. And even more amazed by the people dedicating an evening to viewing them. It added to that holiday feeling that warms you no matter the temperature outdoors.
Thanks to Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb, which he patented in 1880, holiday lights are a major industry today. Approximately 150 million light sets are sold in the United States each year, joining the millions brought out from closets and attics after the Thanksgiving meal is over for another year. Festive lights adorn 80 million homes, not to mention businesses and commercial displays. Each December, these holiday decorations consume 6 percent of the nation’s electrical load.
The Germans introduced Christmas trees or the Tannenbaum. By the latter half of the 19th century, the Christmas tree industry was in full swing. Decorated with ornaments, the tree became even more exceptional when lit. The first Christmas tree lights were candles. Can anyone say fire hazard?
Edward Hibberd Johnson, an associate of Edison’s, had an AHA moment. He hand-wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs together and strung them around a Christmas tree. The idea caught on, particularly once electricity became easily available. In in 1894, President Cleveland put electric lights on the White House tree. As lights became more affordable in the 1940s and 1950s, people began putting them up on their houses, and a trend was born.
When my children were young, we journeyed to see the best regional light displays. It was an event that almost always included hot chocolate. On the home front, I would climb on top of the house and put up our own lights. Not a display worthy of a line of cars, just a nod of recognition to the season.
These days, I’m not as eager to crawl around on the roof, so the lights adorn my front porch instead. I’ve added canal boat rides to my lights itinerary. The Riverwalk in San Antonio, and most recently, Bricktown in Oklahoma City. There’s something about the lights reflecting in the water that makes it ok to crowd into a boat with a couple of dozen strangers.
Perhaps what holiday lights do is remind us to stop and take notice. It really is the most magical time of the year.