The first electrically-illuminated Christmas tree in 1882, courtesy of the Thomas Edison Museum
At a townhouse on East 36th Street in 1882, the first Christmas tree to ever be adorned with electrical lights was lit, paving the way for the frenzy surrounding tree lightings around the world today. As an engineer and vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company, as well as Thomas Edison’s business partner, Edward Hibberd Johnson, was quite familiar with light bulbs. While festively decorating his apartment ahead of the holiday that year, Johnson had a very bright idea: wiring 80 red, white and blue light bulbs together around the tree and placing it in his parlor window.
Edison’s lightbulbs were first demonstrated to the public in 1879
Not only did Johnson’s introduction of electric Christmas tree lights brighten the celebration, it saved lives. For hundreds of years, those celebrating Christmas would decorate their trees with actual wax candles to illuminate their evergreens. Although to be believed a myth, some say Protestant reformer Martin Luther became the first to adorn trees with candles, as a way to mimic real twinkling stars. Despite being a pretty sight, the tradition was a fire hazard, with some trees catching fire and actually burning down homes.
As a way to both prevent fire accidents and promote Edison’s lightbulbs, Johnson hand-strung the lights and placed them on his tree, which sat on a revolving pedestal. After placing his beautifully-lit tree in the window of his Manhattan home, he called newspaper reporters to show off his work.
One reporter’s account described a scenic and festive setting. “At the rear of the beautiful parlors, was a large Christmas tree presenting a most picturesque and uncanny aspect,” wrote W.A. Croffut, a journalist from the Detroit Post. “One can hardly imagine anything prettier.”
The electrically-illuminated tree became a sensation, first in New York City and later spreading all over the country. In the beginning, only the super-rich could afford this now-ubiquitous tradition, especially since electricity was not yet accessible to everyone. In 1900, a string of 16 flame-shaped bulbs sold for $12, which equals about $350 today. As their popularity spread, including to President Grover Cleveland’s White House, the light’s prices continued to drop.
The first lighting of the Rockefeller Center tree in 1933, photo via Rockefeller Center
As technology evolves, so does the capability of Christmas lights. For example, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree now uses LED lights, using 1,200 fewer kilowatts of electricity per day, enough to power a 2,000-square-foot home for a month.
- The history of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, a NYC holiday tradition
- 104 years ago, the nation’s first public Christmas tree went up in Madison Square Park
- The Urban Lens: Visiting Gramercy’s Pete’s Tavern, where O. Henry penned ‘The Gift of the Magi’
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