Family & Education

Let There Be Light: Christmas Lights Lift Spirits in Dark Days of Winter

TIMEDecember 15, 2021

When I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, the passage from Thanksgiving leftovers to packages under the tree started with my mother.

On the first Sunday of Advent, she would assemble an evergreen wreath with four candles—three purple and one pink. Some years, she would attach satin ribbon bows to the base of the candles. Each week leading to Christmas, she would light one candle. On Christmas Eve, a white candle would be placed in the center of the wreath. I loved the ritual and the spiritual preparation.

The history of the Advent wreath hails from Germany in the 16th century predominantly practiced by Lutherans and Catholics.

My father’s preparation for the Christmas season was the hanging of the lights on our outside porch. He would produce a cardboard box tangled with evergreen-colored strings of large bulbs that were at least three inches long. They didn’t flicker or twinkle or make any noise. And when one of them went out, he simply unscrewed it and replaced it with a new one. They were brightly colored—reds, greens, blues, and yellows.

When the winter days turned to night, he would turn them on and their brightness would be reflected in the large living room picture window that looked out onto the porch. I can remember fondly sitting on the couch and looking through the window at those lights. They were steady beaming pockets of color against the darkness. On foggy evenings, their color was softer and blushed against the night air.

Between mother’s Advent wreath and dad’s hanging of the big bulbs, the winter darkness was brightened. Through my parent’s caring, they brought light into the house.

Learning From the Light

Like the Advent wreath, the history of Christmas lights also started in Germany during the 17th century. Candles were carefully placed on the branches of pine trees. They were also carefully watched often, with buckets of water nearby. Eventually, this practice of lighting things up during the Christmas season spread to other parts of the world, including America.

In an effort to market one of his latest inventions, the incandescent light bulb, Thomas Edison hung lights outside of his laboratory in 1880.

A few years later in 1882, one of his entrepreneurial employees, Edward Hibberd Johnson, came up with the idea of stringing red, white, and blue lights around a Christmas tree—it would definitely cut down on fires caused by burning candles. Passersby were intrigued. The idea took off and eventually General Electric bought the patent from Edison. The fact that several presidents started showcasing lit Christmas trees at the White House made it just more fashionable, although very expensive at the time.

Johnson’s original string had 80 lights. By 1884, he had upped that number to 120 bulbs. Certainly, ahead of his time, Johnson’s brilliant idea just got better throughout the years. His marketing miracle has had decorative lights glowing and growing each year.

Luminosity during the holidays has reached new heights. It’s estimated that roughly 150 million light sets are sold in America each year. They light up some 80 million homes and consume 6 percent of the nation’s electrical load each December.

According to data from Statista.com, in 2019, the value of the global outdoor lighting market amounted to about $10.7 billion. The value of this market is expected to rise to $23.8 billion by 2030.

From those large luminous bulbs of my youthful remembering, the variety and amount of outdoor lighting are now staggering—aisle after aisle of bubble lights, twinkling lights, rope lights, or LED lights in a myriad of shapes and sizes. Many of them are remotely controlled or you can set them on a timer and they’ll come on or go off as you choose. Hanging from the rooftops, draped on bushes and trees, adorning fences, surrounding doorways, they blast their way brilliantly into the night.

Our daughter, Sophia, and her family moved to Warrenton from Alexandria, Virginia, this past spring. Now, celebrating their first Christmas in their new home, she excitedly phoned me.

“Mother, we’ve got to drive you through our neighborhood, it’s like a Hallmark movie. So many houses lit up, it’s beautiful.”

She wasn’t wrong. Whether it’s a single electric candle adorning each window of a colonial to dazzling displays, some with projected, moving snowflakes, I was delighted to see so many homes shining.

Lights Glow for All to Appreciate

When it comes to lighting up our homes and neighborhoods, religious and secular lines blur. You don’t have to be a practicing Christian to adorn your home with lights. Even though the practice of adding a glow to the season hails back again to Germany, and those candles on the tree and the burning of the Yule log—all offering welcome light during dark winter days and looking forward to the return of the sun. Christian churches adopted the light from the Yule log burning to represent the light of the world to come—Jesus.

Christmas lights have become a generic word for decorating during the winter season. The burning of the Yule log brought welcome brightness, as did Johnson’s novel idea of stringing Edison’s invention on Christmas trees.

Today, as our American urban and rural communities turn on the lights, I, for one, find this inspiring and very hopeful. It’s a wonderful tradition that has deep roots in many cultures, including our own.

This spirit-lifting light from our homes and neighborhoods that brings big smiles from my granddaughter, awe from my daughter, and inspiration to me is just what we need, particularly in December, as we celebrate Christmas and prepare for the coming of a new year.

Let there be light and let it shine brightly for all to see.

Anita L. Sherman is an award-winning journalist who has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for local papers and regional publications in Virginia. She now works as a freelance writer and is working on her first novel. She is the mother of three grown children and grandmother to four, and she resides in Warrenton, Va. Anita can be reached at anitajustwrite@gmail.com