How Electric Light Changed Christmas Forever

‘THE FIRST’ PODCAST The surprisingly rich history of Christmas lights in America.

That string of multi-colored Christmas lights wrapped around your tree (or your house) is far more influential to American history than you might think.

The first electric Christmas lights debuted in 1882, shortly after the invention of the incandescent light bulb itself, in the New York home of a Thomas Edison employee. They quickly became a vehicle for electric companies to tout the magic of electrical power.

In the process, they helped secularize very basic symbols of the Christmas season. In this episode, find out how the invention of whimsical colored lights helped redefine the holiday and create comfort and unity for millions of Americans.

PLUS: The origin story of those ‘classy’ lights you see wrapped around trees and lampposts on respectable urban avenues.

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Before electric lights, Christmas trees were adorned with candles, precariously balanced upon branches.

Christmas Tree Family, Victorian Christmas, 1858 from Illustrated London News by J. A. Pasqier via It’s About Time Blog

The marvelous rotating Christmas tree of Edward H. Johnson, the first tree with Christmas lights.

Thomas Edison Museum


An electrically lit Christmas trees is one of the components of an ‘Edison household’

Edison Awards

Some vivid packaging from the Edison company.

Edison Awards

Christmas with the Ludor family, 1904. Even wealthy families could only afford to install a small number of electric lights on their trees.


The nation’s first ‘community Christmas tree’ in Madison Square in New York City. Read more about it here.

Library of Congress


President Herbert Hoover prepares to turn on the electric lights of the National Christmas Tree, Dec. 4, 1930. Trees in Washington D.C. have been central to the popularizing of electric Christmas decorations.

Library of Congress

From a 1957 Sears Christmas catalog, featuring bulb sets by NOMA

The Plaza in Kansas City, 1940

Courtesy of Missouri State Archives

Downtown Kansas City in the 1960s, awash in Christmas lights and fine cars!

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in 1964

Robert Richie, photographer. DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University


The Griswolds may have over done it in the film Christmas Vacation.