The first electric light was invented by Humphry Davy in 1802, who connected wires from a battery to a piece of carbon. The carbon glowed, though too brightly for practical use, and didn’t last very long.
It would be 76 years before Thomas Edison filed his first patent for Improvement in Electric Lights in 1878 and another 50 years before electric Christmas lights became a standard part of holiday decorating in the 1930’s.
And while we picture many Christmas traditions as having been passed down from ancient times, most are more recent inventions. Santa Claus sprang to live in the early 1800’s and the decorated tree was introduced to Britain by Queen Victoria’s husband in 1841. In 1856, President Pierce set up a tree in the White House and by the 1870’s, one could purchase a fresh cut tree at Washington Square Park and ornaments for the tree at Macy’s.
It was one of Edison’s employees who first showed off a Christmas tree illuminated by electric lights, but until General Electric offered pre-assembled kits of lights, having a string of bulbs on your tree was something only the wealthy could afford. An electrician would have to be hired to wire up the ole Tannenbaum in the parlor, costing as much as $3000 in the currency of today. However, even 24-bulb pre-wired strands GE started offering in 1903 cost $12 – the equivalent of $184 today.
Eventually, electric lights became the norm, much to the relief of insurance companies who had gone so far as starting to refuse to pay for house fires started by Christmas tree fires. Candles wired to Christmas tree branches might have looked pretty, but I’m pretty sure a drying fir is a fantastic source of fire wood.
Today, only the foolish would still use real candles and modern LED Christmas lights are cool and safe. However, the NFPA reports that U.S. fire departments still respond to nearly 200 fires started by Christmas trees every year. These fires, while rare, can be serious. They’re also easily avoided.
Make sure your new Christmas tree is fresh. Running your hand down a branch might have a few needles fall off, but if quite a few drop, the tree might be dry and you should select another
Also, get a fresh cut on the trunk of the tree, a half inch or so. This prevents the trunk from having scabbed over, which prevents it from drawing water.
Keep your tree freshly watered and keep it away from heat sources. Even a sunny window can cause a tree to dry out. A study from the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point recommends getting the tree in water as soon as you get home and watering it ever day. The study recommends a quart for each inch of diameter of the trunk. At a minimum, the water line should be above the base of the tree and never drops below.
The NFPA also recommends lighting trees only with a label of a recognized testing lab, and making sure you’re using bulbs rated for outdoor use if you’re decorating outside the home. Replace strings of lights that have broken cords or loose bulbs and turn them off before leaving home or going to bed.
And please don’t use any of that 1950’s tinsel made out of lead!