Eureka! It’s Time to Light up the Christmas Tree!

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.

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31 Responses to Eureka! It’s Time to Light up the Christmas Tree!

  1. You’re not alone. I finally decorated my tree last night!

    Also like you and countless others, I find it hard to shake the heaviness of the political reality for the joy of the season. But we must keep keeping on. right?

    Peace to you and your family, Diane.

  2. Still the Lucky Few says:

    Thanks, Virginia. My tree is still in progress, but other decorating is done. Hope you didn’t get two emails from me for this post. For the first time ever, I had a problem with scheduling, so re-posted it. Now I see your comment has come up twice, so there is definitely a glitch, which I will follow up today. Many apologies, and thank you for being such a devoted reader!

  3. Pat Skene says:

    Lovely and interesting post. When I downsized to a condo, I delivered 16 boxes of Xmas decorations, complete with a pre-lit tree, to my daughter’s house 10 minutes away. Now we have a tree trimming party every year and I can enjoy the event without the hassle of lugging boxes up and down the stairs. If you can’t give the work to your kids after years of doing it yourself , what are they good for? 😊 Merry Christmas! 🎄

  4. What a lovely post!

    “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.”

    I’ve always enjoyed the lights and colour, and have always lived in a place where the landscape in December was black and white, with grey and dark green as highlights. The colours at Christmas are my favourite part of the celebration.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Thanks, Maggie. The brilliant colors that we associate with Christmas is a boon to our mental health…I’d guess they go a long way to promoting a ‘spirit of Christmas’!

  5. Christina Southern says:

    Thanks Mom..like usual very interesting! And to think you didn’t have electricity as a child!

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Yes, but we had lots of ways to get around that…coal oil lamps, kerosene lamps, lanterns, candles, etc. A fire in the wood stove all winter long!

  6. Clive says:

    Lovely post, Diane, and very interesting to see the development of tree lighting through the ages. I don’t have room for a proper tree but have a mini version, 2ft high, which sits on a side table, which I decorate with battery-powered LED lighting. And it doesn’t need unravelling every year! It wouldn’t feel like Christmas without some lights, would it!

  7. Janis says:

    Interesting history! So many of our Christmas traditions have nothing to do with the birth of Christ (which probably happened earlier in the year anyway) and more to do with pre-Christian beliefs and rituals. I love the lights and decorations too – although we don’t go overboard at our house. I saw one of those projector lights just the other night. It made the house look like it was shimmering. They are pretty cheap (less than $50) and easy to put up so I imagine it will catch on.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      It’s so interesting that you saw a projector light. No one seems to know what it is. I don’t decorate as much as I used to. As I get older, I lose enthusiasm for it! Thanks for your comment, Janis!

  8. Maddy says:

    Thanks for such an interesting post Diane, I think you may have helped me to raise some interest in Christmas myself.
    The decorations go up here in Sydney mid-November and my view is not that I’m late, but that they’re early! And I just can’t get that cozy atmosphere in 37 degree heat . . . we certainly have some wonderful light displays in many of our suburbs but when those colored balls and that tinsel twinkle in the sunshine, well, let’s just say you have to have grown up with it to appreciate it!

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I’ve been in Mexico. Hawaii, and Cost Rico at Christmas in the past, and admit that it’s a different kind of holiday in hot weather. Still, I enjoyed it, and was happy to see the variety of ways to celebrate.

  9. Cathy says:

    even with no snow, and apparently we should have sunny and hot by Christmas day, so many people here have a fully lit up tree with all the trimmings…

    I don’t have anything up/down/on this year… mainly because I decided to give away so much when I moved but also because I still haven’t located a whole lot of other interesting things I need to find to use – particularly for my artworks.

    if you were in the loop on my best mixing bowl (kitchen-wise) that was missing – it is now “found” it was doing duty in a deep drawer holding much smaller things. I had some entertaining “mixing days” before it surfaced!

  10. Rummuser says:

    You will see a lot of Christmas lighting in India too. Even non Christian families would do this at the insistence of children who expect it to be done as a matter of course. Earlier in October/November, depending on the Indian calendar, we would have had our own festival of lights Diwali and in most homes, the strings of lights put up for it would remain insitu till the new year except that they would not be lit in the nights till Christmas.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      It’s interesting that the customs of the US have carried over into all parts of the world, Rummuser. At least I credit the force of the US culture with the proliferation of some of our holiday customs. Decorating with lights (and the giving of gifts), in my view, comes only partly from Christianity, but the carry-over in terms of their commercialism, is clear. So much of what we do at Christmas has been glamorized and promoted through American movies. The world has become a smaller place, with no firm borders! But I’m sure the origins of Diwali reside firmly in Indian culture.

  11. Lynne Spreen says:

    What an enlightening post 😉 Thanks for taking the time to share. Years ago, I downsized to an artificial tree that stands about 3.5′ tall and folds up into a box. Lights are already on it. I put it on a table in a prominent corner, hang a few special ornaments (grandchildren’s hand prints, Mom’s beaded angels, etc.) and I’m pretty much done. Last year I bought an even shorter tree for the grandkids to decorate. They’re 4 and 6. I also bought an assortment of cheap decorations from the dollar store. This way they don’t mess with the “adult” tree and have their own to fight over. Merry Christmas, Diane!

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Well, you know how it is…once I start writing about a personal issue like tree trimming, I get a little carried away! So have no fear, it’s not as bad as it sounds! Bob and I put the lights on our 8 ft artificial tree last night, and it looked so great that we decided not to add all of the other dodads that we usually put on it. So, now I’m relaxing with a coffee and contemplating my shortened ‘to do’ list! Have a wonderful Christmas, Lynne!

  12. We drastically downsized 5 years ago when the fire burned all but one of the trees on our land. We used to go up and cut our Christmas tree every year. Now I don’t decorate down here but Andy puts his tree and lights up on the roof up there. Some of the neighbors appreciate it. 🙂

    I don’t feel as gloomy as you do about the state of the nation and of the world. Mankind has gone through horrible times before (think of the Black Plague for instance). I mainly feel grateful that we’ve so privileged for so long. Time for courage and to look for new solutions.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Such a creative Christmas tradition—putting a tree on the roof! Good for Andy! I do feel gloomy about the current state of USA politics. Trump is dangerous to world peace, and the condition of the planet. I worry that he has access to so much power. I have children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews. I’d like to see them have a chance. And yes, you are right. It is a time for courage and new solutions. Thanks, Jean.

    • Cathy says:

      We the ordinary (as such) person, needs to realise that we probably can’t do anything about the world, the nation, the local situation much at – and we have to just go with the “flow” and in particular one we as individual makes…

      make choices that you can work with, even if it has to be done behind closed doors if our “neighbour” should think we should be reported. I am trying to challenge myself not to worry about much; so many changes “often just rumored” even if the media saying something quite different.

      if it happens whatever your worries are – how will one cope…that is why “going your own kind of way, in your own flow” I believe is best.

  13. Yeah, Another Blogger says:

    Good story, Diane, and very informative. I really like these lines: “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.”

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Thank you! It was a hilarious movie, I thought at the time. Humor does change, though, and it may be considered a bit slapstick today. Have a good holiday!

  14. Joared says:

    History of this holiday always interesting — means different things to different people. I recall a year in the USA here in Southern California when we were admonished to cut back on electric use do to a energy crisis, but each subsequent year we ceased to hear about that and external holiday lights proliferated. This year I have only a single battery powered candle in my kitchen window which faces the front of the house. Some years I’ve had various decorative holiday objects with colored lights in that window as the other major rooms windows face the opposite side of the house. Consequently, decorations in those living areas are only viewed from inside. At my age, I’m not inclined to be climbing ladders to decorate outside and my husband hadn’t been able to either for many years. I’ll enjoy those of our younger neighbors though not all decorate.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      My sentiments too! I’ve really cut back on decorating, as I’ve mentioned here and in the article. I’ve found that the more you put on the tree, the more you have to take down and store (duh!!). So everything is about downsizing lately. After all, it’s not stuff that’s important—it’s people and time! Thanks, Joared.

  15. Aunt Beulah says:

    As always, you have educated and entertained me, leaving me with lots to think about. I agree that our world is in particular need of the beauty of lights and kindness this year.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Thank you for your comments, Aunt Beulah. Most welcome and appreciated! Yes, I’m enjoying having a more relaxing time this week, and I hope you are too!

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