Christmas Trivia - Christmas Lights

Why do people display Christmas lights?

Although many aspects of the Christmas celebration represent the continuation of old-fashioned traditions drawn from our past, Christmas lights are largely the reverse of that - a rapidly evolving, technology-driven practice that reinvents old traditions and introduces new ones.

The custom of decorating with lights for Christmas began with the use of candles to decorate the Christmas tree in upper-class homes in 18th-century Germany. Candles, which were a relatively expensive light source at the time, were glued to a tree branch with melted wax or attached by pins.

The risk of Christmas tree fires led to many candle-lighting safety innovations in the second half of the 19th century, including counterweighted candle holders, spring clip candleholders, and tiny candle lanterns.

Early in the 20th century, the candles gave way to electric lights, and illuminated Christmas trees were displayed publicly.

General Electric sponsored community lighting competitions in the 1920's, and by the mid-20th century, Christmas lights escaped from the trees, and it became customary to display strings of electric lights as Christmas decoration along streets and buildings.  Ornamenting houses with christmas lights became especially popular in the 1960's in tract housing in the United States.

Christmas lights then migrated from the house to standalone light sculptures. The first light sculptures were large wireframes made for public displays, sometimes mounted on utility poles or lampposts.  Then small plastic home versions became available for lawns, walls, and doors.

It became a pastime to drive or walk around neighborhoods in the evening to see the lights displayed on and around other homes. Although some homes would have no lights, others might have incredibly ornate displays that took weeks to construct, and required an auxiliary electrical generator, or even a separate electrical service.

Next, Christmas lights escaped Christmas itself. Chains of Christmas lights were seen as an effective way to provide ambient lighting to verandas, patios, and the landscaping around businesses.

Finally, Christmas lights were adapted to other holidays, such as Halloween, Easter, and the 4th of July, by featuring different colors or themed light-covers, so that, for example, the Christmas lights might appear as a string of bulbs each illuminating a small plastic jack-o-lantern.

Recently, computerized LED lights have created even more sophisticated Christmas light displays, flashing and changing colors in rapid succession to suggest patterns in motion.

Used Christmas lights are recyclable. Each year, at least twenty million pounds of discarded holiday lights are shipped to China, where the strings are chopped to a fine consistency, and then separated into their plastic, copper, brass, and glass components for re-use.

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