I may have mentioned every single December (and sometimes not-Decembers) that I’ve written for GeekMom that I am a bit of a Christmas geek. I just get filled with joy very easily. The other day… night—after dark, at least, which could very well have been long before supper at this time of year—I was bubbling with the joy of Christmas lights. So much magic is wrapped up in Christmas lights! They transform the whole world into a fairyland! And then it occurred to me how odd it is that something so modern has embedded itself so deeply into making Christmas Christmas. How can the platonic form of Christmas include such a recent development?
So, geek that I am, I looked it up and found this article from Smithsonian. Turns out one of his employees invented strings of colored electric Christmas lights just two years after Edison patented the light bulb. This was decades before people’s houses were even wired for electricity! Edward Johnson sold his (expensive) Christmas light set with its own generator.
This first electric Christmas light set came out in 1882. This is only a year after Thomas Nast published his first iconic drawing of Santa as a “Merry Old” white-bearded man dressed all in red, and it still wouldn’t be until 1930 when Santa appeared looking exactly what most people now think of, in a Coca-Cola ad. Christmas cards didn’t become a tradition until the early 1900s. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer didn’t show up until 1939. “Electronics” may sound modern, but electric Christmas lights go way back.
And if Grinches among you are inclined to point out how many house fires have been caused by electric Christmas lights over the decades, in an effort to counter my enthusiasm for their inherent goodness, let me remind you that before electric Christmas lights, people put actual open-flame candles on actual wooden trees. As soon as humanity found a way to capture a flame inside a bulb, it wasted no time figuring out how to string those flames into Christmas decorations.
It’s like the technology, rather than being a new fad that became a tradition, simply filled a spot in tradition that had been waiting for it to show up all along.
Of course, that’s obvious. That’s what December holidays are all about. Bringing light into the darkness. Look, full disclosure, I’m a Catholic Christian, so I do celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, but to me personally, it goes far beyond that. I don’t believe the 4th century Christians chose the (at the time considered) Winter Solstice to celebrate the birth of Christ on a whim, on a let’s-simply-co-opt-the-traditions-already-in-place decision: it’s about Light coming into the world to drive out Darkness. ALL December holidays (created in the Northern Hemisphere, at least—I am now curious about June holidays created in the Southern Hemisphere), even and especially including Dewey Decimal Day on December 10*, are about bringing light into the darkness! It’s a primal thing.
Humans have a need to counter the darkness of this time of year. Piling into an automobile and driving around town looking at the lights on people’s houses may not have been done hundreds of years ago, but if the people hundreds of years ago could’ve, they would’ve.
Electronic Christmas lights are an ancient Winter Solstice tradition that just took millennia to come to fruition, that’s all.
I wonder what other ancient traditions humanity is just waiting on the technology to perfect?
*Look, I shouldn’t have to explain to you how Dewey Decimal Day is about bringing light into darkness, should I?