The story behind the tradition of hanging holiday lights

For many people, it doesn’t feel like the holidays until the lights are hung up and twinkling. But how did the tradition start?

Turns out it’s the result of old-fashioned American innovation --and clever marketing. 

Thomas Edison patented the light bulb in 1880. To drum up excitement around Christmas time, he strung up incandescent bulbs all around his Menlo Park laboratory compound to dazzle passing railway commuters.

Two years later, Edison’s associate Edward Johnson had the brilliant idea to use electric lights to replace the beautiful, (but extremely hazardous!) candles used to decorate Christmas trees. He wrapped a tree with a string of 80 red, white and blue light bulbs and set it on a revolving platform in a window.

Despite onlookers’ delight, due to expense (and a general distrust of indoor lighting) it would be decades before the tradition took off. 

But in 1894 President Cleveland put electric lights on the White House tree. By 1900, a string of 16 flame-shaped bulbs sold for a pricey $12 (that’s about $350 in today’s money). But as always, technological advances make things cheaper and by 1914, a 16-foot string cost just $1.75. By the 1930s, colorful Christmas lights were everywhere-- and the tradition continues to this day. 

So say a ‘thank you’ to Edison, pull out the ladder, and light ‘em up!