VanDusen Botanical Garden, Vancouver, Canada
Visitors take a stroll through VanDusen Botanical Garden’s Festival of Lights, where more than a million lights can be seen over 15 acres. Every winter thousands gather to see competing neighborhoods, small towns, and sprawling cities shine with festive lights and decorations.
Around the holidays, millions of sparkling lights illuminate cities worldwide, with decorations growing more elaborate each year. In the U.S., an estimated 150 million sets are sold each year. Recently, string-light sales have spiked (they were up 201 percent in November 2020 from the year before).
But the holidays weren’t always so bright. Before there were electric lights, candles lit the way for the holiday season. During the 17th century, German families would attach lit candles to their Christmas trees to illuminate their handcrafted decorations. Despite being a fire hazard, this practice quickly spread across Europe and later into the United States.
The custom remained mostly the same until 1882, when Edward Johnson, a friend and colleague of Thomas Edison, saw a festive use for the light bulb Edison invented three years prior. He hand-wired 80 red, white, and blue lights together and wound them around a Christmas tree in his home in New York.
Spectators flocked to see the flashy display, but the practice didn’t immediately catch on. Electricity was widely mistrusted, and seasonal lights were too expensive to mark them as a holiday tradition. The practice became popular among wealthy families, when President Grover Cleveland used electric lights to decorate the White House family Christmas tree in 1895. Dozens of department stores used Christmas lights to liven up their holiday displays to attract customers. Still, in 1900, a pre-made string of lights cost $12 (about $397 today), making them impractical to the average American.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that these glittering decorations became a symbol of Christmas for the masses. Several manufacturing companies merged to form the National Outfit Manufacturers Association, creating affordable sets that would dominate the seasonal light market for decades. President Calvin Coolidge cemented the use of holiday lights at Christmas with the first lighting of the National Christmas tree—glowing with 3,000 electric lights—in 1923. By the 1930s, a string of lights cost $1.75 (about $29 today), swiftly turning them into a world phenomenon.
This story was originally published in November 2011 and updated December 2018 and 2021 to reflect new information.