More Power to 'Em
The holiday lighting tradition is steeped in history but also a uniquely American custom according to holidayled.com’s condensed version of “Christmas Lights and Community Building in America” by Brian Murray, who argues that the genesis of the American Christmas light tradition arose from the medieval page tradition of Yule. Yule is a German tradition where people burned the “Yule Log” to celebrate the winter solstice and the short dark days of winter. The burning of the Yule Log offered welcome light during the dark winter days, summoned the return of the sun, and warded of evil spirits. Churches adopted this medieval tradition and incorporated it into annual celebrations. The light from the burning Yule Log came to represent Jesus as the light of the world.
However, the modern American tradition of Christmas lights did not arise out of these ancient wintertime traditions alone--the modern tradition also developed largely as a result of the Christmas tree’s introduction. The Germans and Scandinavians brought evergreens into their homes as symbols of life and the upcoming spring. They carried this tradition with them to America as immigrants and decorated the trees with ornaments, fruits, and eventually lights. Murray said Harvard Professor Charles Follen decorated an evergreen tree with candles in 1832, which is believed to be the first use of Christmas tree lights. This tradition became popular.
But, while the candles were beautiful, they were also obvious fire hazards and insurance companies refused to cover damages related to Christmas tree fires. At this time, Thomas Edison and business partner Edward Johnson introduced the first electric holiday lights in 1882, which were prohibitively expensive for most people. The price eventually lowered and by 1920 Christmas tree lights’ popularity spread like, well, fire.
Following World War II, American cities began decorating their town squares with strings of lights reflecting a tradition begun in New York City several years earlier. It didn’t take long for individuals to begin stringing lights on their homes, as the lights grew less expensive and easier to install.