This is a Good Question story that originally aired Dec. 23, 2006.

DENVER (CBS) – There are a few streets around the Denver metro area where the electric meters spin like slot machines — where the glow of lights ignites the sky above. Where there’s, ahem, maybe a little competition. But we digress.

Let’s go back. Light has always been symbolic. In the Christian faith the origin of lights at the holidays seems to track to the biblical story of the birth of Jesus. In the Gospel of Matthew the magi followed the bright star to Bethlehem. In the Jewish faith the menorah became a symbol of celebration in 165 B.C. after the Jews defeated Syrian armies.

The use of electric lights, however, grew from the tradition of placing candles on Christmas trees. Candles were first placed on trees in the 1500s or 1600s in Germany. Priest and theologian Martin Luther gets credit for the idea in one popular story, but that one may be as truthful as a silver Christmas tree.

Along came electricity in the late 1800s. Believe it or not, some people preferred candles and lamps. They were probably more reliable than outage-plagued electrical power. Enter Edward Johnson, one of Thomas Edison’s compadres in the invention racket. In 1882 he had one of the few homes in New York City wired for electricity. He wired up lights on a tree in front of a window for all to see. It was a hit. The rotating tree drew adoring eyes and ignited the fires of — you guessed it; competition.

In the years after, highbrow New Yorkers just had to have an electric tree.

“The wealthy were the only ones who could afford it, so of course they put it in the biggest picture window of their house and show everybody that they could afford an electrically lit tree,” said George Nelson.

Nelson has become the nation’s top collector of Christmas lights and runs an online museum.

General Electric bought out the rights to Thomas Edison’s light bulb contraption 10 years after Johnson lit the first tree. It only took GE a few years to figure out that it should package and sell Christmas lights. Only 13 years after Johnson placed electric lights on a tree, there were electric lights on a tree in the White House. The craze was on.

Outdoor lights took longer to catch on. Power companies on the East Coast tried to get people to use more power during the depression by handing them out.

“They would actually give the lights to people, to neighborhoods and say we’re holding a contest, or the family that decorates the best wins this marvelous prize and it was usually a good prize like a refrigerator or a stove which were very, very expensive,” Nelson said.

By the 1970s just about all the lights we were using were being made overseas.

If you’ve been to a store for lights this year you’re probably aware there’s another transformation underway. LED lights are taking over the holiday glow. No they don’t have the warm glow, but when you’re firing up 35 acres of lights like at the Denver Zoo, it really helps.

Additional Resources

Here’s a link to George Nelson’s Web site. There are also some really cool pix of old-time lights.


— Written by Alan Gionet


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