Thomas Edison Invented Christmas Lights as a Publicity Stunt

We don't mean to shock you, but Christmas trees weren't always strung up like the Vegas strip. They were given to us by a most unlikely Santa: Thomas Edison. Well, kind of. Edison "invented" Christmas lights in much the same way he famously "invented" the light bulb, which is to say he took someone else's design and made it a little better. Before the 1880s, Christmas trees were lit with actual burning candles, which sounds festive as shit but also a great way to kill your entire family at the most wonderful time of the year.

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It also took 1880 people to sync one house to Christmas carols.

Edison's Christmas lights were initially not Christmas lights, though. Technically, they were New Year's lights, strung up around his New Jersey laboratory on New Year's Eve 1879, which just happened to be within view of a nearby railroad. Its passengers marveled at the pretty lights, but the notoriously unsentimental Edison was just showing off, trying to win a bid to supply Manhattan with electricity.

"I said they WON'T kill Santa; what more do they want from me?"
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It worked, but the public was still wary of the devil's fire, so in 1882, Edward Hibberd Johnson, who was kind of Edison's hype man, got the idea to put the string lights on a Christmas tree instead of the traditional candles and display it in a prominent window. (It also rotated on a pedestal, a tradition we as a culture have rudely passed on.) Locals stopped to ooh and aah, but the press were like, "Ugh, another one of Edison's stunts. Give it a rest, Bulby."

Johnson had to call in a reporter on his own, all the way from Detroit, to get any coverage, but that report did its job. It took another decade or so for electric Christmas lights to really take off, but they became the holiday must-have of the late 19th century. Think of them like the Victorian Furby, except much less likely to set your house on fire.

Top image: Edison General Electric Company

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