Tangled incandescent vintage lights
Tangled incandescent vintage lights

The history of Christmas lights

Nowadays, there are Christmas lights decorating everything, with people in some countries competing for the best displays, but the lights used to be just on the Christmas trees which have long been used for rituals and decorations.  

The tradition began in 17th century Germany when trees were first brought into the house and people decorated them with candles secured on the branches with wax or pins, which of course was a huge fire risk. The candles were to represent the star that led the Wise Men to Christ, but eventually they were used to light up the many glass ornaments that adorned the trees.

Did you know that the first Christmas tree to be illuminated by electricity was in New York in 1882? It was Edward Johnson, who worked with Thomas Edison, who first arranged a string of 80 red, white and blue lights on a tree. Soon, they were commercially available but were initially very expensive. In the UK, as early as 1886, there were adverts in the newspapers for “coloured fairy lights which run for 10 hours”.

Lagoa Lights
Lagoa Lights

We have always called the lights fairy lights (taught by my grandparents) and there are two interesting stories as to the origin of the name.

One is that it comes from the trademark of Samuel Clarke, an English designer who patented small glass lights embossed with a fairy and whose glow made it look like a fairy was actually inside them.

The other story is that the name derives from Gilbert & Sullivan’s comedy opera “Iolanthe”, which was put on at the Savoy Theatre in London in December 1882. In the show, the ‘fairies’ wore, for the first time on stage, small Swan incandescent electric lamps in their hair and dresses. The electricity was supplied by accumulators concealed by their costumes, and these were both a big hit with the audience and a potential “danger to life” for the fairies. The Savoy was also the first public building in the world to be entirely lit by electricity with over 1,200 Swan incandescent bulbs.

Fairy Lights
Fairy Lights

It did not take long before public Christmas trees were illuminated in the early 1900s and, by the mid-20th century, strings of electric lights were placed in the streets and on public buildings. However, it was only in the 1960s that people started to decorate the outside of their houses, with the custom eventually spreading throughout Christendom.

Turning on the towns’ Christmas lights has become an ‘event’, although some do seem to be turned on at the beginning of November, which is a bit early, I think! Usually, a celebrity or the local mayor is asked to do the honours.

During the great depression, novelty lights were created depicting snowmen, icicles, angels, etc., and soon manufacturers were creating rotating lights, flashing lights, fading, twinkling and multicoloured lights. Then came the LED lights (which stands for ‘light-emitting diodes’) in the 1970s, which allowed for different shapes, including mesh lights, to decorate large areas and which revolutionised Christmas lighting.

Commercial lights
Commercial lights

I remember my mum taking out the fairy lights each year, only to find they did not work and then having to use a spare bulb to test every bulb on the string, one at a time, to find the broken one! Also, how do the lights get tangled up by themselves in storage? Every year, I must untangle a jumbled mass of cables, which drives me mad.

Traditionally, Christmas lights should be turned on the first day of Advent and should be turned off on the twelfth night, or Candlemas. Whereas some people love to put up their tree as soon as possible, I only get around to it just before Christmas eve.

Over the years, as the children have grown up and the grown-ups do not have the patience for opening up hundreds of tree branches, we have progressed from an almost four-metre-high tree in the lounge to just using the top part, which is under one metre tall. However, I still exaggerate with decorating all the rooms with tinsel, garlands and, of course, fairy lights. It is considered bad luck for the Christmas decorations to be left up after the twelfth night and usually it is a mad rush in our house to take everything down. How empty and dull the place looks afterwards!

Rossio in Lisbon
Rossio in Lisbon

I popped up to Lisbon at the end of November and I was delighted to see that some of the Christmas lights were already on. They always bring that Christmassy feeling and make me look forward to Christmas. However, I was surprised to find that many were turned off.

I found the same in my hometown of Lagoa when I drove around wanting to take photographs for this article, and I wondered where Christmas was, for the light fittings were up but not turned on. Upon further investigation, it seems that many councils in Portugal have adopted an on/off timetable and less on hours to help with the energy crisis. Portimão, for instance, has one hour off to two hours on. Whilst I applaud energy-saving initiatives, it did feel sad to see the lights off. Eventually, as I left town, I did find some lit up!

Additionally, to save energy, councils have replaced the old incandescent glass lights, with their thin filament that lights up the glass making it very hot to touch, with the more energy-efficient LED lights, which produce light as the electricity passes through them, converting 95% of their energy into light, which makes them 80% more efficient. They waste just 5% in heat and use less power and lower wattage to produce a bright light.

This is a lovely time of the year to get the whole family together to celebrate and exchange gifts. The number of gifts each year is supposed to get smaller, but it never does. Stockings too are a tradition in our home, and everyone does one for someone else filled with little practical things or edibles, although I do still slip in the odd game or puzzle for my grown-up children.

My lights are all LED ones now and, once I untangle them, they will go on the little tree and around the rooms for I do like to see them twinkling and bringing a festive feeling to the house, and this year, over Christmas dinner, I will tell everyone the history of the fairy lights!

So now you know!

By Isobel Costa
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Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.