This week my husband went downstairs to the storage room to bring up our boxes of Christmas tree decorations. It takes real commitment to do this every year. After all, we know what those boxes contain—glass balls without the metal hangers, garlands with last year’s needles still attached, and
messes (I mean masses) of Christmas tree lights carelessly tossed in and destined for a sorting out, (which never happens).
And we’re late, red and green Christmas lights went up on our Parliament buildings across the harbor two weeks ago, the conical imitation trees are already scattered around the city, reminding everyone that Christmas is just around the corner. Not to mention my condo neighbors, who put up their usual display of astoundingly beautiful decorations inside and outside of their unit in late November. But the urgency I feel this year is a little different.
We’ve had an uneasy year—tinged with a global escalation of negativity as we watched the unfolding of US politics. There has been little joy. So it’s more than simple decorating this year. There is a need to light up the winter darkness and bring warmth into our lives to dispel the inner gloom that has descended these past few months.
The early origins of Christmas lighting
Historians say that the tradition of lighting the darkness goes back centuries to a midwinter festival celebrated by Norsemen, who watched their fires leap around a burning Yule log in the home hearth, and drank ‘Yule’, the Norse god’s sacrificial beer.
According to further research by Clare Hickey, this became a long standing trend throughout the centuries. She says,
“In the days before electricity lit up dark skies, people set candles in their windows, especially on long winter nights to welcome weary travellers. That flicker of light was a beacon of hope. For wanderers of those desolate and pitch-dark roads, that tiny glow in the darkness meant sanctuary was just ahead.”
Lighting up the darkness, sparked other traditions. Before long, it became customary to light up the surrounding greenery. No doubt the color green represented eternal life, and plants that remained green all winter became wreaths and garlands decorating homes, cheered by feasting and candlelight.
The candle lit Christmas
Legend has it that Protestant Reformer Martin Luther was the first to put lights on a Christmas tree. Walking home one night Luther was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling through the evergreens he passed. To share this with his family he erected a tree in his home and wired the branches with lit candles. Soon a star was affixed to the top to represent the star in the east that shone where the baby Jesus lay in a manger.
And so the traditions continued. Digging through the remnants of Christmases past in our boxes of decorations, I am reminded about the many changes in Christmas tree lighting we have seen over the years. For older people, like me, this evolution has been witnessed first hand. Some of you may have grown up without the convenience of electricity—not so far-fetched as you might think! In 1945, less than four percent of Alberta farms had electricity, a number far behind most other provinces and the American Midwest. Only 87% of rural Alberta, where I grew up, had access to electricity by 1961.
So if you were one of the kids who didn’t have the advantage of electricity, you might have made paper chains and snow flakes from colored construction and crepe paper. Your parents might have hung colored glass balls, usually purchased from Eaton’s catalogue, on the fir branches, and woven garlands of silver and gold tin foil throughout the tree. That was usually topped off by hundreds of strands of tinsel draped over the branches—producing a tree which glistened with reflected light of lamps and fires in the home.
Some children had the exciting prospect of seeing lighted candles on their trees, a tradition which started in Germany and spread throughout Eastern Europe, and which was as beautiful as it was dangerous. Historical pictures depict clip-on candle holders with an attached tin cup used to catch the melted wax as the candles burned.
The electric Christmas tree arrives!
Elsewhere in the world, where electricity was an established fact, American and Canadian cities experienced the advances made by the Edison Electric Light Company from 1850 on. In 1895, then President Grover Cleveland oversaw the first electrically lit White House Christmas tree—and it was so spectacular, illuminated by hundreds of multi-colored electric light bulbs. that a new tradition was established.
Well, of course, no one alive today, will have witnessed these early days of illumination, but some of you may remember the first Christmas lights which were safe enough for widespread use in the home, by 1925. In New York in 1923 President Calvin Coolidge famously lit the National Christmas tree with about 3000 lights. The lights were manufactured by Albert Sadacca, who created the NOMA Electric Company (National Outfit Manufacturer’s Association) which became the largest Christmas light manufacturer in the world. The name, NOMA dominated the electric light arena. By 1966, this glorious era came to an end, and the NOMA Electric Company filed for bankruptcy. By the 1970s, almost all Christmas lights were foreign-made.
The introduction of the mini-light in the 1970s, which continues to be popular today, created a revolution in decorative lighting. I still laugh out loud (LOL) when I think about the 1989 movie, Christmas Vacation, with Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) turning his house into a tangle of extension cords in his insane quest for the perfect 250-strand display.
The latest advancement in holiday lights is the use of LED (light-emitting diode) technology. which has emerged as an energy efficient alternative to conventional incandescent lighting. These lights are far more efficient and have a much longer life-span. People love them. The proportion of Canadian households that reported using LED holiday lights in 2013, went up to 40% from 29% in 2007.
Just thinking about all of this has slowed me down. It’s almost lunchtime, and decorations are scattered all over the house— I’ve scarcely started. I’ve just seen a television commercial, about a method of house lighting which allows you to point a technological instrument at the outside of your house, and in a split second you can have a million points of light illuminate your home.
Maybe by next year, given how fast technology is progressing, there’ll be a sort of “Christmas tree decorating gun”, which we’ll just have to aim at the tree, and presto, it will be fully decorated.
It can’t happen soon enough.