Santa's Whiskers

Extreme decorating of personal residential homes.

Extreme decorating of public and commercial places.

Edward Johnson.
Original façade of the Savoy in 1881 when it opened on October 10.
Thomas Edison.
Circa 1900, this photo shows a tree with lighted candles. It is from the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Electric Christmas Lights

Before electric Christmas lights, families would use candles to light up their Christmas trees. While it brought life and light to the tree, this practice was 
often dangerous and led to many home fires.

​​Thomas Edison, the inventor of the first successful practical light bulb, created the very first strand of electric lights. During the Christmas season of 1880, these strands were strung around the outside of his Menlo Park Laboratory. Railroad passengers
traveling by the laboratory got their first look at an electrical light
display. But it would take almost forty more years for electric
​Christmas lights to become the tradition that we all know and love.

In 1881, the Savoy Theatre in London was the first building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity. Sir Joseph Swan, inventor of the incandescent light bulb, supplied about 1,200 bulbs, and a year later, the Savoy owner, Richard D’Oyly Carte,
set up miniature lights for the opening night of the Gilbert and
Sullivan opera “Lolantheon” on November 25, 1882.

​Edward H. Johnson put the very first string of electric Christmas tree lights together in 1882. Johnson, Edison’s friend and partner in the Edison’s Illumination Company, hand-wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs and wound them around his
Christmas tree. Not only was the tree illuminated with
electricity, it also revolved.

He displayed the lighted tree on December 22, 1882, at his
home on Fifth Avenue in New York City, and, as was common
for the day, invited various members of the press to come see.
The New York papers ignored the story, thinking it a publicity
stunt. However, the story was published by a Detroit newspaper
and it gave Johnson recognition as the father of electric
Christmas tree lights.

However, the world was not quite ready for electrical Christmas
illumination. Because it was so new, there was a great mistrust
of electricity, and because of it’s complexity only the wealthy
could afford to hire an electrician necessary to put together the
strings of Christmas tree lights (estimated to cost $2,000 in
​today’s dollars). It would take many more years before society would decorate its Christmas trees and homes with electric lights.

Some credit President Grover Cleveland with spurring the acceptance of indoor electric Christmas lights. In 1895, he requested that the White House family Christmas tree be illuminated by hundreds of multi-colored electric light bulbs.

By 1900, businesses started stringing up Christmas lights behind
their windows.

In 1903 General Electric began to offer pre-assembled kits of
stringed Christmas lights.

The first recorded instances of the use of Christmas lights outside
were San Diego in 1904, Appleton, WI, in 1909 and New York City
in 1912.

About that same time it was Albert Sadacca who saw a future in
​selling electric Christmas lights. The Sadacca family owned a novelty lighting company and in 1917 Albert, a teenager at the time, suggested that its store offer brightly colored strands of Christmas lights to the public. By the 1920’s Albert and his brothers organized the National Outfit Manufacturers Association (NOMA), a trade association. NOMA soon became NOMA Electric Co., with its members cornering the Christmas light market until the 1960’s.

It is believed that the first outdoor public electric light Christmas Holiday display was organized by Fredrick Nash and the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce in Altadena, CA, on Santa Rosa Avenue, called “Christmas Tree Lane.” Christmas Tree Lane in Altadena has been continuously lit, except during WWII, since 1920.

On Christmas Eve 1923, President Calvin Coolidge began the country’s celebration of Christmas by being the first President to light the National Christmas Tree with 3,000 electric lights on the Ellipse located south of the White House.

By the 1930s electric Christmas lights had become a standard part of holiday decorating.