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Why do we actually light up the Christmas tree?

Carolin Teufelberger
Zurich, on 22.12.2021

Whether real candles or fairy lights, lighting is a must on the decorated Christmas tree. Why actually?

Fragile baubles in gold and red. The unfortunately not so fragile straw baubles of the Göttibueb. A star as a centerpiece on top. That's more or less what the average Nordmann fir looks like on Christmas Eve. But the conifer only becomes really festive with lights.

Why is that?

Hope and health

In 1611, Duchess Dorothea Sibyl of Silesia was the first to come up with the idea of decorating her Christmas tree with wax candles in addition to apples and nuts. Light had long played an important role in the dark Advent season, as it was supposed to drive away evil and bring hope. The tradition of bringing evergreen plants indoors in winter is also much older. Even the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews and Chinese believed that this brought health into the home. And the Romans decorated their buildings with laurel wreaths. The pagan custom was first mentioned in literature in 1492 by Sebastian Brandt. In "The Ship of Fools" it was said:

<!-- quote: For he who does not bring something new || And goes and sings about the New Year || And puts fir-green on his house, || He thinks he does not live out the year; || Egypt already held that to be true! || Likewise, to whom for the new year || Nothing is given by others, || Who thinks that the year begins badly. "The Ship of Fools" --></p> <p>In "The Sorrows of Young Werther" from 1774, Goethe expressed himself less mockingly about the Christmas tree, then decorated with "wax lights, candy and apples." So the duchess's combination had long since caught on. At least among high officials and wealthy townspeople, since fir trees were a rare and therefore costly commodity.</p> <p>The demand for trees became greater. Forests of fir and spruce were established. From the 19th century onwards, every middle-class parlour in the countryside and in the cities of Central Europe had a tree with candles. In the USA, people were still living behind the moon at that time. It wasn't until Karl Follen, an emigrated German Harvard professor, brought the custom to the New World by setting up and lighting a Christmas tree in his home.</p> <h2>The lights went electric</h2> <p>50 years later, the next stage in the evolution of the lighted tree occurred in the United States: strings of electric lights. This was made possible by Edward Johnson, vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company. It was not until December 31, 1879 that Thomas Edison created awareness of an emerging electric age with a public presentation of his incandescent lamp with carbon filament in New York. When his partner Johnson asked a technician to make him a string of lights for his Christmas tree in 1882, most people did not yet have electricity. No wonder, then, quite a few passersby and a Detroit journalist tried to catch a glimpse of his living room. The local media largely ignored the magic. It wasn't until 1884 that even the New York Times found words of admiration for the electric lights.</p> <p>US President Grover Cleveland put up the first electrically lit Christmas tree in the White House in 1895. It was a decision that launched the triumph of electric lights. For American high society, the lights were henceforth a status symbol, a new way to show off and make one's acquaintances jealous. In those days, a "wireman" had to be hired specifically to put the lights on the tree. A generator was also still needed for most people. The total cost was $300, which would be the equivalent of $9926 today.</p> <p>In the early 20th century, even the less well-off could finally afford electric lights. In 1903, General Electrics, as Edison and Johnson's company was called after a big merger, introduced the first set of lights that were already wired and just needed to be plugged into an outlet. It cost $12, the equivalent of $379 today. Still not a bargain. Ten years later, the price dropped to $1.75 ($49 today), making the lights affordable for the upper middle class.</p> <h2>No risk, more fun?</h2> <p>American insurance also played a role in the market penetration of electric lights. That's because candles tipped over or left burning too long caused rows and rows of homes to burn down. In the long run, insurance companies found it too expensive to pay claims. As a result, they excluded candle accidents on Christmas trees from their insurance cover.</p> <p>So it came to this. <p>So it came to pass that electric lights had almost completely replaced candles in the USA by the 1930s. In Europe, it took until after the Second World War for fairy lights to become more popular. More and more homes began to do without wax candles. Today, just 15 percent of all households put wax candles on the tree, says the Swiss Council for Accident Prevention (BFU). The rest rely on fairy lights.</p> <p>By the way, small lights as we know them today have only been around since the 1970s, which again triggered a small revolution, as they were cheaper, more energy-efficient and easier to distribute. This meant that people could finally slap giant illuminated reindeer, Santas and stars on their facades and get into an arms race with their neighbours. And even the god-boy's artwork could be blinked away.</p>

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My life in a nutshell? On a quest to broaden my horizon. I love discovering and learning new skills and I see a chance to experience something new in everything – be it travelling, reading, cooking, movies or DIY.


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