By Essie Wambui
Living in the Northern Hemisphere almost always guarantees either a cold or snowy Christmas, or both – like this past Christmas (2017). Snow arrived the week before and by the 25th, most regions in Canada were on a cold weather alert or warning.
For those of us who cannot ski or enjoy other winter sports, we learn to bear it and hibernate when the weather is terribly cold. But what do you do with yourself and those you are closeted with during Christmas break? In the past few days in Toronto for instance, temperatures have ranged from the minus teens to minus thirtysomething.
I’m intrigued by new things and since moving to Canada, I’ve been introduced to the tradition of laying out Christmas lights & decorations. I can’t wait for people to turn on their outdoor Christmas lights. It’s become a favourite pastime for me, bringing cheer in the dreary December nights. I will go through neighbourhoods for a number of evenings just to enjoy the massive displays and splendour of light & colour. Depending on the neighbourhood, some will have flashy multi-colour dancing lights, while other streets will be monochrome, sophisticated and designed to blend-in.
This year, I ventured into a neighbourhood where the one percenters live and captured a few shots.
My intrigue led me to want find out the history behind Christmas lights. Outdoor Christmas light displays on houses evolved from decorating the traditional Christmas tree and house with candles during the Christmas season. The tradition of lighting the tree with small candles dates back to the 17th century in Germany before spreading to Eastern Europe. The small candles were attached to the tree branches with pins or melted wax. In addition, European Christians used to display a burning candle in the windows of their house that was visible from the outside. The candles in the window indicated to other Christians that the house was a Christian house and that other Christians were welcome to come worship with the residents.
Due to the danger involved the trees would be displayed for only a couple of days before Christmas, and the candles were only lit for a few minutes at night, a far cry from the elaborate tree and home displays we are familiar with today. People were aware of the fire dangers and kept buckets of water and sand nearby in case the tree caught fire. The lit tree was often placed in front of a window for people outside the house to see.
Thomas Edison and Edward Johnson
During the 1880 Christmas season, Thomas Edison introduced the first outdoor electric Christmas light display to the world. He displayed the lights outside of his laboratory compound, which sat near a railway where many people could see it each night. This was the first official outdoor Christmas display that was separate from decorating just the Christmas tree.
Edward Johnson, who was an inventor under the supervision of Thomas Edison, created the first string of Christmas lights a couple of years later. The string of lights was made out of 80 small electric light bulbs. In 1890, the strings of lights were mass-produced and department stores began displaying them in Christmas displays in their stores. Public displays of Christmas lights in retail stores and government buildings became more popular in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century and gave way to outdoor displays on homes a few decades later when the electric lights became more affordable.
Display on Homes
Thanks to a company called NOMA and other competitors that arose in the Christmas lights business, more and more people began to buy Christmas lights in the 1940s and 1950s. As the lights became cheaper, and people started decorating their houses as well as their trees to match elaborate department store displays. As the lights became affordable to more people in the 1940s and 1950s, people decorated their houses to symbolize the Christmas star that was supposed to have led the Three Wise Men to the manger where Jesus was born on Christmas Day. The outdoor displays have become a symbol of the Christmas season.
By Esther “Essie” Wambui