Why do we hang outdoor Christmas lights?

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My family has been hanging Christmas lights on the house for years and years, but I don’t know how the tradition got started.  When and where did people first get the idea to hang up Christmas lights outside?

  1. Public display of lighting affection

    Every year around this time, Dad goes and gets the big ladder out of the garage. He digs through the boxes of family mementos in the garage until he finds the box with the 2 linear miles of Christmas lights tangled up into a ball the size of a standard classroom globe. He swears. Finally, he untangles them, set the ladder up against the eave of the house, and starts climbing and stapling.

    It’s a given he’ll accidentally staple his thumb at least once (and swear) and come within 2″ of falling off the ladder, clinging to the gutter for dear life (and swearing). Finally, he finishes and calls mom and the kids to come out and see his masterpiece, and yes — it’s worth all the blood, sweat, and (mostly frozen) tears.

    This has been going on for as long as we can all remember, so where did it start?

    Light up the season

    Lighting Christmas trees with candles dates back to the 17th century, but it wasn’t until 1882 when Edward H. Johnson — an associate of Thomas Edison — hand-wired his Christmas tree with 80 red, white, and blue bulbs and put it on display in his New York home. Mostly ignored by the local papers, considering it nothing more than a publicity stunt, the story ended up being picked up by a Detroit news reporter and ever since Johnson has been considered the Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights. In 1895, President Grover Cleveland proudly presented the first electrically lit Christmas tree in the White House, and by 1900 businesses had started stringing up Christmas lights behind their storefront windows.

    The first recorded instances of using Christmas lights outside occurred in San Diego, California in 1904; Appleton, Wisconsin in 1909; and New York City in 1912, according to this original research paper.

    General Electric began sponsoring community lighting competitions in the 1920s, but the first “modern” example of outdoor Christmas lighting is credited to the town of McAdenville, North Carolina in 1956. The Library of Congress recognizes the town for inventing “the tradition of decorating evergreen trees with Christmas lights… when the McAdenville Men’s Club conceived of the idea of decorating a few trees around the McAdenville Community Center.” The city of Philadelphia’s Christmas Light Show also traces its origins to 1956.

    Modern times

    After this, it was just a matter of time. As the 1960s dawned, it became more and more popular to decorate the outline of the home — especially the eaves — with strings of electric Christmas lights. Since then the displays have gotten bigger and bigger every year, many times with neighbors attempting to outdo each other’s, erm, brilliance. No doubt the popularity of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation has something to do with this, along with the classic case of “keeping up with the Joneses.”

    So haul out that ladder, make sure your tetanus shots are up to date, get the Band-Aids ready and put 911 on speed dial, ’cause it’s time to hang the lights!

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