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A History of Christmas Lights: Everyone's Favorite Winter Pastime

Posted on September 24, 2022
General electric Christmas lights advertisement, 1949


By Cristiana Hawthorne

Christmas time growing up always meant the smell of freshly baked cookies, the family singing carols around the piano, decorating the tree, and of course, hanging the Christmas lights. The lights so vividly set the tone for the Holiday season. Their vibrant reds, greens, yellows, whites, and blues, sparkle up through the falling snow.

If we could pull ourselves away from the 8th re-watching of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or the 12th re-watching of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see our family driving around together, searching for the best displays of Christmas lights.

We’d start our family outing at “the Christmas house”. There’s one in almost every neighborhood. You know, that house that goes all out. The light-up reindeer on the roof! The whole sleigh if you were really lucky. Glowing, 2ft tall candy canes lining the driveway. Twinkling icicle lights hanging from the eaves. A Christmas projection or 2 cycling on the garage door, and a countdown to the big day hanging from a tree.

Then we’d drive around the nearby neighborhoods, seeing if we could find a house that topped the first one we saw. Maybe the next house wrapped all their trees, or has a lit blowup Santa Claus in the front yard! Maybe they coordinated with the neighbors to make a full-on Winter Wonderland, with each yard housing one gigantic letter, spelling out “Merry Christmas”.

If it was an especially good year, you might get the chance to go on an actual Christmas light tour with the whole family...with someone else plotting out the most efficient route to hit all the highlights! (hint hint: Built Story will lead you to the best Christmas lights in your a self-guided, low-key, wonderfully magical, way.) 

Driving around to see Christmas lights is a favorite Holiday tradition for families and groups of friends alike, across America. But where did this wonderful winter pastime come from? And how did it become one of the most popular Christmas things to do?

Let’s start at the beginning.

The History of Christmas Lights

The Early History of Light at Christmas

The tradition of using light to celebrate the solstice season is hardly new, or even American. Long before Christmas trees or Christmas lights, people lit bonfires to celebrate the longest night of the year, and the subsequent turning point of the days once again, becoming longer, as the world moved back towards summer.

Early Romans, Northern Europeans, and Scandinavians all used evergreen boughs to worship their various sun deities during the solstice. But the Germans are credited with being the first to use evergreen trees to celebrate Christmas, in the 16th century.

As the story goes, Martin Luther was walking home one night, admiring the glowing stars shining brightly through Germany’s native evergreen trees. The light was so beautiful, that he wanted to find a way to replicate it for his family. So he brought home one of the first Christmas trees, and wired candles onto the branches, so his loved ones could share in the beauty.

Martin Luther's candle-lit Christmas tree.
Steel engraving of Martin Luther's Christmas Tree, from Sartain's Magazine, circa 1860.

The First Christmas Lightbulbs

This is all lovely, but you might be wondering, what does this have to do with Christmas lights? Well, this is where ancient tradition meets a tale of American ingenuity. Candles on Christmas trees were popular well into the early 1900s, but in 1882, Edward Hibberd Johnson, a close business associate of Thomas Edison, took the leap of putting lights on the tree.

It took a while for it to catch on. Johnson put 80 red, white, and blue bulbs on his first tree and placed it on a rotating pedestal in the front window of his parlor. He called local reporters to come and see his beautiful new innovation. To Johnson, gone were the days of brief candle-lit tree light ceremonies and fire hazards.

While the public agreed that the tree was stunning, the lights were much too expensive for the general public to start using, and electricity itself has yet to really catch on across much of America.

Christmas Lights Catch On

Reminiscent of Queen Victoria popularizing the white wedding dress we all take for granted, it was President Grover Cleveland who popularized Johnson’s new-fangled Christmas bulbs. In 1894, President Cleveland placed electric Christmas lights on the White House Christmas tree, launching them into popularity.

And in the 1920s, General Electric began mass-producing Christmas lights, making them accessible and affordable. By the 1930s, colored Christmas bulbs were the norm for tree decorating. The industry grew exponentially in the 40s and 50s, and as the lights became both safer and more affordable, people started to decorate the outside of their homes too.

An electric Christmas lights advertisement from the 1890s.
An electric Christmas lights advertisement from the 1890s. Getty Images

Why Do Americans Put Up Christmas Lights?

It’s clear how Christmas lights got their start, but why do Americans love putting up Christmas lights so much?


In part, we honor tradition each time we we carefully adorn an outdoor spot, or our indoor tree with a strand of lights. Light at Christmas time harkens back to our earliest ancestors. We are just a few in a long line of people that have found their way to light during the longest nights of the year. For more religious families, the lights signify the glowing light of Jesus Christ or even the star of Bethlehem.

For more secular families, the Christmas lights follow in a family tradition of lighting up the long cold winter nights with bright, joyful lights. Our parents and grandparents hung Christmas lights, and so we do, as well.

Cultural Influences

Moving from a serene, simple, early celebration of light to, ahem, a more flashy one: there are also quite a few cultural influences that prime Americans to love the lavish displays of Christmas lights. The United States is the same country that bought the world other joyful expressions of excess, like Disneyland, Las Vegas, all-you-can-eat buffets, and “land-yacht” cars. 

America has a culture of maximalism. We crave the rush and stimulation of the over-the-top. And that’s not a bad thing! From the very beginning, Johnson grew his Christmas light displays year by year. He started with 80 bulbs, but the next year he had 120! It’s no wonder that we’ve carried on the tradition by outdoing ourselves time and time again. To the point where many private homes and neighborhoods' light displays have become a destination in and of themselves.

Dyker Heights, Brooklyn Christmas Lights Display, home.
A home in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn.

The Next Magical Chapter

Christmas lights have both a rich history and a jubilant present to explore! Next time you’re searching for “Christmas lights near me”, consider trying a self-guided tour—complete with turn-by-turn driving directions. 

Might we suggest this list of Christmas light tours to check out🤶. Combining storytelling, GPS, and a customized route to the most magical lights in your town -- experience the next period in the history of Christmas lights🎄. A sparkling, cozy, easy evening awaits.

Enjoy one of the best Christmas activities winter has to offer, without the fuss of searching out each neighborhood “Christmas house” yourself. Grab some hot cocoa, load your crew in the car, and hit the road. Find a dazzling tour for your area, here.✨


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