And now, as the Christmas holiday is upon us, some pontification …
With all the nostalgia for past Christmases, when the holidays were less commercial, I'd like to suggest at least one advancement today: Christmas time is a much more colorful season in the era of electricity. The Christmas season of lore, idealized in so many Currier & Ives sketches, was not only a more brutish time (e.g., no central heating, limited hot water, no supermarket to dash off to when you realize you've run out of eggs) — it was a more monotone era. While candles are beautiful, they offer only limited colors. Not to mention the risk of fire.
The invention of electric Christmas lights changed all that. It's generally acknowledged that the era of electric holiday lights was ushered in by a Edward Johnson, a colleague of Thomas Edison at the Edison Electric Lamp Company. In 1882 he strung together a series of specially made red, white, and blue walnut-size bulbs, and wrapped them around a Christmas tree in his home, replacing the (more hazardous) use of candles that had been in custom in Northern Europe for hundreds of years.
Not long afterwards, in 1895, President Grover Cleveland — or rather, his wife, Frances Folsom Cleveland — strung the first electric lights onto the White House Christmas tree. (President Franklin Pierce had introduced decorated Christmas trees to the White House 40 years before.)
Still, into the early 1900s it remained prohibitively expensive for families to use electric lights on their holiday trees. Electricians had to be hired by more affluent families to decorate their trees with lights. Then, according the the Library of Congress, the first commercially available stringed electric lights were offered by GE in 1903. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, competitions arise in communities across the country, pitting neighbor against neighbor in a bid to "outshine" each other. Like the house in Carrollton Township, Mich., which lights up the community with 10,000 lights. Or the home in Readington Township, N.J., which features 75,000 lights. Or, perhaps pushing the limit in decorum, the house in Surprise, Ariz., which allegedly features a mind-boggling 250,000 Christmas lights.
So enjoy the show. It only comes once a year, courtesy of course of our remarkable electricity grid.