History of Christmas Lights


The Evolution of Christmas Lights: From Candles to LEDs

Christmas is truly an amazing time of year, filled with countless things to do, plan for, and see. One of the most iconic elements of this holiday season that we all look forward to is the dazzling displays of Christmas lights. Each year, people eagerly unpack their lights or invest in the latest festive trends to adorn their homes and trees with colorful and cheerful reminders of the holiday season.

Candlelit Beginnings

The tradition of Christmas lights began modestly, with candles serving as the primary source of illumination. These candles were initially attached to the tree using wax or pins. This tradition can be traced back to Germany in the 17th century, and over the next two centuries, it became a widespread practice in Germany and eventually spread to other countries in Eastern Europe.

The original purpose of these candles was to bring illumination to the ornaments adorning the tree. This practice continued until around 1900, when candleholders gained popularity and started replacing wax and pins as a means to secure the candles to the tree. The purpose, however, remained the same: to illuminate and make the beautiful ornaments on the tree even more visible.

Pastor Wayne, one of our blog readers, read this article earlier this year and has this to add: 

Thank you for providing a history of Christmas lights. I have been doing some research out of pure curiosity.
I recommend including the origins according to German tradition, that Martin Luther first put candles on the tree for his children as a teaching tool. The candles he decorated the tree with represented the star that led the Wise Men to Christ. It definitely has Christian roots and symbolism according to quite a few sources; not just to "illuminate the pretty stuff on the tree."

That’s super interesting. Who knew?! We love the traditions and cultural lore associated with lights, trees, and ornaments. 

The Advent of Glass Ornaments

Glass ornaments were used to light trees since at least the 1500s. Interest in decorating Christmas trees with ornaments peaked when Queen Victoria’s tree was featured in a London newspaper. About the same time people started using small lanterns and ornaments to hold candles. This marked a significant shift in the history of Christmas lights and it paved the way to the era of electric lighting.

Electric Lights Enter the Scene

In 1882, a momentous event took place in New York when the first Christmas tree illuminated by electric lights was introduced. Edward Johnson, a friend of the famous inventor Thomas Edison, was responsible for this innovative display. The Christmas tree was lit with beautiful hand-wired strings of red, white, and blue lights, which are still favorites today. This milestone paved the way for the creation of the first string of Christmas lights which were made available for sale around 1890. 

Lighting up the White House

The White House saw its first electrically lit Christmas tree in 1895, when it was illuminated by President Cleveland’s First Lady, Frances Cleveland. She considered Christmas lights, “technologically savvy”! (2) Go, Frances!!

Making Lights More Accessible

Initially, the cost of these electric lights made them prohibitively expensive for most people, with a set of 24 lights priced at $12, equivalent to around $80 today. However, a brilliant idea emerged—renting Christmas lights. General Electric (GE) produced the first sets of Christmas lights for rent in 1903, making them more accessible to a broader audience. These lights came in seven colors: clear, frosted, green, blue, purple, ruby, and opal.

Public Reluctance and Safety Innovations

Not everyone took to these new-fangled decorations due to a general mistrust of electricity. In 1917, a fire caused by Christmas lights prompted some safety enhancements. Albert Sadacca developed safer lights that reduced the risk of fires caused by Christmas light strings.

But in 1917 Albert Sadacca recognized the marketability of Christmas light strings and featured them in his family’s store: 

The Sadacca family owned a novelty lighting company and in 1917 Albert, a teenager at the time, suggested that its store offer brightly colored strands of Christmas lights to the public. By the 1920s Albert and his brothers organized the National Outfit Manufacturers Association (NOMA), a trade association. NOMA soon became NOMA Electric Co., with its members cornering the Christmas light market until the 1960s. (Library of Congress)

This retail event marked the beginning of wider acceptance of Christmas lights—and the beginning of the cherished tradition of placing strings of Christmas lights around trees and homes to illuminate the holiday season.

Outdoor Light Displays and Novelty Lights

The tradition of outdoor light displays, which we now associate with driving around to see beautifully lit homes and visiting elaborate light shows, began in North America. This expansion was made possible by the development of safe outdoor Christmas light bulbs and light strings in 1927.

In the 1930s, novelty lights started to emerge, spreading holiday cheer and boosting light sales during the Great Depression. This era saw the introduction of snowman lights, icicle lights, and various other holiday-themed lighting representations.

The Bubble Christmas Light 

After World War II, bubble Christmas lights gained immense popularity. These lights contained a mysterious liquid that would bubble and create a tinkling noise as the chemicals inside boiled. Produced initially by the NOMA electric company, they became a sensation in the late 1940s and continued to be used until the 1970s, with many still operational today. 

Aluminum Trees and Rotating Flood Lights

The popularity of aluminum Christmas trees in the 1950s prompted Christmas light manufacturers to invent multi-colored rotating flood lights to enhance their appeal. This innovation also contributed to the use of similar lighting techniques in outdoor displays, making them more attractive and versatile.

Three guesses why electric lights aren’t great for silver trees? We own two of them and their sharp, pokey metal branches make electric light strings a risky proposition. 

Not related to electrical concerns, they are also risky for toddlers and short dogs. We used short fencing in our house around our vintage silver trees when our boys were little! 

Continued Advancements

In recent years, Christmas lights have shown no decline in their popularity. They continue to evolve in both design and function. Tube and track lighting, featuring small mini lights encased in solid plastic tubing, have gained traction. In the 1970s LED Christmas lights emerged as a more energy-efficient and visually striking alternative. (LED technology was developed in large part by science that got us to the moon. Space flight was related to Christmas lights?!) These lights create stunning displays at night, are energy efficient, and are very durable compared to their glass counterparts. 

Anyone who has toddler-help with Christmas light installation can understand why polycarbonate plastic construction is important.

Christmas lights have become a symbol of the Holiday season, offering a versatile means of creating beautiful displays. Many families have transformed decorating the tree, their homes, and yards with Christmas lights into a cherished tradition, bringing together loved ones for the opportunity to see the “flip the switch” moment. As the years pass, Christmas lights continue to brighten our lives and homes, with new uses and creative displays constantly emerging.

Evolution of Christmas Lights Styles and Designs

Christmas lights have come a long way since the early days of candles and lanterns. Today, there are many different types of Christmas lights available, including:

Types of Lights

  • Incandescent (glass) lights: Incandescent lights are the oldest type of Christmas lights. They are made with a thin filament that heats up and glows when electricity passes through it. Incandescent lights are relatively inexpensive, but they are also somewhat inefficient and produce a lot of heat. That being said, many people still prefer their warm look. For small installations, glass bulbs & cords and glass string lights are an economic choice, especially for homeowners installing lights for the first time.

  • LED lights: LED lights are becoming the most popular type of Christmas lights available today. Made with light-emitting diodes, they produce light when electricity passes through them. LED lights are much more efficient than incandescent lights, and they produce little to no heat under operation. LED lights are also available in a wide variety of colors and styles

Style of Lights

  • Bulbs and Cords: C7 or C9 light bulbs are installed into commercial Christmas cords. This style of lights allows the ultimate customization. You can choose the color of cord and color and style of bulbs. In addition to the cone shapes, round bulbs are also a popular choice and look like candy along a roofline.

  • Mini lights: Mini lights are small, delicate lights that are often used to decorate Christmas trees. Mini lights are available in both incandescent and LED varieties. We love the traditional look of glass mini lights but appreciate the variety and durability of LED string lights.

  • Icicle lights: Icicle lights are long, strings of lights that resemble icicles. Icicle lights are often used to decorate roofs and gutters. These have a classic look and are fantastic mixed with net lights of the same color.

  • Net lights: Net lights are a type of Christmas light that is made up of a mesh of lights. Often the mesh is hand tied. Net lights are often used to decorate large areas, such as shrubs and trees. We love this style of light for last-minute Christmas decorating. 

Christmas lights are currently available in a variety of different colors, including pure white, warm white, natural pure white, clear glass, yellow, red, green, blue, orange, pink, teal, and purple. Some Christmas lights also have different effects, such as flashing, twinkling, and fading.

No matter what type of Christmas lights you choose, we love that Christmas lights represent a tradition passed down through hundreds of years that started with candles and landed on semiconductors—for now. Lights are a part of the Holiday season that everyone looks forward to. 



  1. Library of Congress. "Who invented electric Christmas lights?" Everyday Mysteries, Library of Congress, 25 Oct. 2023.
  2. "The White House Christmas Tree." George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, National Archives, 2023, georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/president/holiday/whtree/