It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas
The Christmas season is well and truly upon us now with decorations, trees and lights everywhere, and Christmas carols on endless repeat wherever you go. While the endless food and gift shopping and the relentless heat could induce ‘Christmas fatigue’, nothing beats the joy and wonder that Christmas lights in suburban streets bring to children and adults alike, not to mention the neighbourhood rivalry they inspire.
Tracing the origins of Christmas lights back to the festive tree, candles first adorned decorated trees in Germany in the 1700s. Queen Victoria’s husband Albert, who was born in Bavaria in the early 19th century, brought the trend to England and by the 1860s hundreds of Christmas trees were being sold in Covent Garden. They were decorated with clove-studded oranges, cinnamon sticks, pine cones, and wax candles signifying stars in the night sky – a key symbol of Christmas. Across Europe, Christians would also display a burning candle in their windows to indicate others were welcome to come and worship with the residents.
Thomas Edison introduced electric Christmas lights to the world during the 1879-80 Christmas period, the same year he invented the electric light bulb. His lights appeared outside his lab compound, next to a railway line, and were seen by hundreds of people travelling by train. Shortly after, Edison’s employee Edward Johnson invented the first string of Christmas lights using 80 small bulbs and by 1890, these strings were being mass produced with public displays of Christmas lights popping up in department stores, retail shops and government buildings. By the turn of the century, lights became more affordable and were adopted by ordinary people to decorate their trees at home. Outdoor displays really took off in mid-century America when General Electric introduced the Merry Midget lighting sets which took suburbia by storm.
Australia enthusiastically adopted Christmas lights – it was one tradition that easily translated to the southern hemisphere, regardless of the weather. Now, they appear in almost every town and city where Christmas is celebrated. LEDs, solar energy and programmable technology enabled Christmas lights to be more compact, durable and elaborate and competitions for the best individual or street display are held right across Queensland, from Texas to the Torres Strait, bringing joy to families and inspiring that ongoing neighbourhood rivalry.
To enjoy more Christmas lights, see Garry Taylor’s collection (32593 4KQ Christmas Lights Competition photographs) or State Library of Queensland’s Flickr album, Christmas Greetings.
Anna Thurgood - Engagement Officer, State Library of Queensland
- National Film & Sound Archive article “Lit up from Toowoomba to Tasmania”, accessed 6 December 2019
- English Heritage article “How did Queen Victoria and Prince Albert popularise Christmas?”, accessed 6 December 2019
- Smithsonianmag article “Untangling the history of Christmas lights”, accessed 6 December 2019
- Gizmodo article “The very American history of Christmas lights”, accessed 5 December 2019