Normally, while Jews across the country begin celebrating Hanukkah, the festival of lights, Christians have had a good 2 week start on them with their own festival of lights- the installation of Xmas lights.
Along with Black Friday the official kick off for the display of Xmas lights seems to happen as soon as the last piece of pumpkin pie is eaten on Thanksgiving.
Like clockwork, hundreds of tiny electric lights of all colors magically appear on storefronts and homes, trees and shrubs across the land. One can hardly find a street in America during the month of December where the majority of houses are not lit up in a dazzling display of lights.
Eight skinny, little Hanukkah candles can’t even begin to compete with vibrating LED lights pulsating in sequence to the tune of gangnamstyle.
It’s Beginning to L00k a Lot Like Christmas
When I was growing up, a favorite family activity -a true example of 1950’s togetherness– was driving around my suburban neighborhood admiring the dazzling display of Xmas lights.
Looking at Christmas decorations was as much a holiday ritual for me as playing spin the dreidel.
No sooner would we finish lighting our Hanukkah candles on our silver-plated menorah than we’d load up in the car to drive around the neighborhood in pursuit of this most American display of merriment – a twinkling winter embodiment of the American dream. Suddenly plain, lack luster split levels were dressed up in their holiday best, each competing with the other for the most dramatic and colorful display of electric Christmas lights.
By the time we returned home, our own little holiday candles dripping and drooping in a pool of wax, had forlornly reached the end of their illumination. The flickering reflection of a distant neighbors colorful Xmas lights reflected in our darkened home.
We may have had 8 days of Hanukkah but they had nearly 6 weeks of illuminated glory. That glittering part of the American dream winking at us seductively from neighbors homes was always just outside my grasp.
Let There Be Light
In the winter of 1961, I was actually invited into the inner sanctum of one of those illuminated homes by my first grade classmate Linda Harris. As my Mom dropped me off at her house I stood outside in my Snowster Gaytee rubber boots in the snow and stared at the glittering house.
An illuminated, translucent plastic Santa mask beamed at me merrily from their large picture window. His glowing, jolly face intending to radiate good cheer was in fact a bit frightening. The door was gaily decorated with bright red vinyl plastic streamers with 8 tinkling bells in graduated sizes, the jingling of bells announcing my arrival.
Once inside the exotic smell of balsam and baking holiday ham filled my virgin nostrils.
If it were true that GE brings good things to life it was certainly true in my friend’s home where every corner of her living room was magically a glow, thanks to the wizards at General Electric, Westinghouse and Sylvania.
There in front of me stood their tree majestically filling the room. The big gleaming globes of glass ornaments that had been taken down from their attic now hung on the branches of the Douglas Fir. The ornament’s lustrous colors with silk screened designs of Santa and reindeer, holly and jingle bells shimmered, reflecting the twinkling string of electric lights.
The tiny tree lights twinkled independently and the effect was mesmerizing.
The twinkling lamps called fairy lights made merry little pinging sounds as each flashed on and off. However to the family’s great consternation, their Philco TV was constantly on the fritz with the twinkling of lights. The winking lights caused severe electrical interference on both television and radio, causing snow to appear on the TV screen as often as it did outside.
But nothing was more magical than the electric bubble lights nestled on the tree. Bubble Lights were all the rage and the Harris family were not short of supply
Bubble lights were tiny glass tubes styled like miniature candles and their holders, filled with a colored liquid that bubbled rhythmically as the bulb inside heated up the liquid creating merry little bubbles The sparkle of tiny bubbles in motion added to their cheery glow as they flickered like the candle it was supposed to replace.
When all was said and done, it all came back to candles even if their electric candles were filled with the chemical methelyne chloride to create that intoxicating holiday glow.
The Candles Are Burning Low
Once upon a time the only way to light a tree before electricity was with candles.
Though a tree lit with candles was a charming sight, it was to say the least quite dangerous. Originally the candles were just attached to the tree by dripping hot wax on the branch and pressing the base of the candle on it. Eventually candle holders were designed just for this purpose came on the market.
The open flames coming in contact with pine needles especially on dried out trees could generate a fire. Cautiously, most homeowners kept a bucket of water or sand near the tree for such emergencies.
Despite their danger, the use of small candles remained the popular method of illuminating Xmas trees well into the 20th century.
GE Comes to the Rescue
General Electric was the first to market a Xmas light set in 1903.
Referred to as “Festoons” the 24 bulb set was priced at a hefty $12. While this may not seem too expensive today, the cost was out of the reach of most people The average wage for the time was 22 cents per hour which equaled a weekly paycheck of about $13.20. Electric Xmas lights were for basically for the wealthy 1%
These early sets did not plug into a wall socket like today. Houses in those days were wired only for lighting so the end of the string had to be in the shape of a screw in light bulb base so that it could connect into an existing wall lamp or ceiling socket.
By the 1920s demand went up and prices went down. As household electricity became more available and “electric servants” became more a part of daily life, strings of electric bulbs became increasingly common on Xmas trees. By the 1930s electric Xmas lights had become a standard of holiday decorating
“Twas the night before Xmas when all through the house, you could hear poor papa yelling “Our Xmas tree lamps won’t light again.”
So begins this 1940 ad for GE Mazda lamps for Christmas. Nothing was more frustrating than a burned out bulb and with GE’s new multiple light strings you could avoid the frustrating holiday hunting of burned out bulbs. When one lamp goes out, others continued to sparkle. “There would be,” they promised no “blackout of holiday joy.”
1940 would turn out to be the last good Xmas season for a while.
With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, war was declared. Needless to say Americans holiday spirits were severely dampened. The Xmas 1941 selling season was a dismal one for the lighting manufacturers and that would only be the beginning.
The manufacture of Xmas lights virtually stopped during WWII as the materials were needed for war effort instead. Old string lights that were in warehouses before the war were sold as long as the stock lasted, and then Americans had to make do with their old sets.
A Bright Post War
A t the end of WWII, pent-up post war enthusiasm for Xmas lighting returned with a vengeance.
War-weary folks were eager to light up their new sub division homes and marketers were happy to oblige. Lighting companies took a full year to recover but by 1946 were able to offer an amazing number of innovative lighting outfits.
Some new types of lamps appeared including the bubble light introduced by NOMA which soon became the worlds best-selling Christmas light set. Bubble Lights were actually invented in the 1930s but NOMA the purchaser of the patents on the lights had to wait till the war was over before they could be manufactured.
Consisting of a colorful candle shaped glass tube filled with a chemical called methylene chloride and a plastic base that holds a light bulb in close contact with the bulb, the units bubble whenever heated. The chemical had such a low boiling point that it would even bubble from the heat of your hand or the sunlight entering the room through a window. The liquid came tinted in several colors
Heavily advertised in 1946 NOMA’s Bubble Lights were the thing to have for a properly decorated Post-War tree.
Let It Snow Let it Snow
The next great step forward was the introduction of Permacote finish for Christmas bulbs, which let you use the same bulb indoors or outdoors. An exclusive Westinghouse development the color was provided by colored glass, fused to the bulb itself.
“Yes,” explains this 1951 ad by Westinghouse “Let it rain snow, blow or blizzard…these new Westinghouse Permacote Christmas bulbs will burn steadily with sparkling jewel like brilliance throughout the holiday seasons Their colors can’t chip or peel! It’s not paint! You’ll be smart to insist on Permacote when you buy new tree lights”
This was such a walk down memory lane….thank you! I grew up in that same era…wasn’t it just magical????
So glad it brought back good memories for you!
Really lovely overview of the history here, enjoyed your descriptions. Thanks for sharing!
So glad you enjoyed the post.
Makes us want to dig out our flannel robe and slippers, untangle the wires and light up a tree. In our minds, anyway.
A warm and comforting image