Okay, Listen Here

Okay, Listen Here

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Thank You Mr. Johnson

I have been down at the beach this weekend, fixing up a few things at the condo. Since it’s Christmas and I am a sucker for flashing multi-colored lights, I couldn’t just sit there the week before Christmas without a brightly lit Christmas tree. To remedy the problem of leaving my ten-foot tree at home, I went to a local store and bought a cheap two-foot tree and two fifty-bulb strands of light. No ornaments, no tinsel, no garland – just lights. Sitting by the window, the surf pounding and my lights merrily blinking, I felt more in tune with the Holiday Season. I also began to wonder who got the idea for lighting a Christmas tree with electric lights instead of candles. Who was responsible for one of my favorite things about Christmas?

Well, my research pointed me to the Edison Light Company. It seems that Edward Johnson, a vice-president of the company and a friend of Thomas Edison, told the light bulb department to make him a connected strand of light bulbs for Christmas. On Christmas Eve 1882, Mr. Johnson flipped the switch and forever changed the way we decorate our trees. His tree was lit with eighty small bulbs and the entire city of New York was aghast. It was simply a modern marvel! Only the poor populace of New York was not to have those electric lights for their trees until 1890 when Edison finally began to mass-produce them. At that time, a single sixteen-bulb strand of lights cost about $12.00 (equivalent to $300.00 today). Mighty expensive. So the business of renting Christmas lights began. The price eventually dropped and soon everyone was using the new-fangled electric lights instead of burning down their houses with candles on Christmas Eve. The rest is history.

I really would like to thank Mr. Johnson for his American ingenuity in coming up with Christmas lights. My fondest memory as a child was being loaded up in the car on Christmas Eve while wearing my pajamas, wrapped in a blanket and then taken on a tour of Montgomery to view the Christmas lights. The memory of sitting snugly in the back seat, singing Christmas carols with the family and exclaiming over the beauty of people’s displays always fills me with nostalgia. And, my sister and I usually kept a close eye on the night sky in case we might catch a glimpse of St. Nick. It just made the trip more delicious. When we finally came home, my mother would make hot chocolate and then send us to bed, warning that if we didn’t go to sleep Santa wouldn’t stop at our house.

I continued the tradition with my son, enjoying the displays that people put so much labor in to provide for my entertainment. I loved the lights and inventiveness that some people came up with. He still wants to go look at the lights on Christmas Eve but instead of cocoa we now share a bottle of wine, sitting around the Christmas tree mesmerized by the blinkies. To me, Christmas without my lights would be dull and boring.

Right now, staring at my little tree and doing the math, my one hundred bulbs in Edison’s time would have cost me about $3,600.00 (in today’s money that would be equivalent to about $30,000.00). Geez! My admiration for the pitiful little tree just grew.

Did you ever go wandering in the car, looking at the Christmas lights? Was your family one of the people who decorated their yards? Do you go to the professional displays like the Huntsville Botanical Gardens or Arab’s City Park?


  1. When I was young, my family would bundle up and drive around Huntsville looking at all the Christmas lights and displays. Then we would stop at a Christmas store and my brother and I would each get to pick out a new ornament for our tree. I still have a pink gingham hippo with an eyelet tutu!

  2. My family had a string of outdoor lights that had HUGE bulbs. Every year they went around the edges of the porch. We had a "fancy" wreath for the front door and those plastic candles in the windows and that was it for outside lights.

  3. Cathy, I too have those ornaments we would buy. One pretty ugly giraffe with a scarf but he's on my tree right now.

    Stephanie, we had those plastic candles in the window but Mom put blue bulbs in them. Go figure...

  4. We had those great big multicolored lights around the door window but they what to be prefect straight and not blink. I still don't like blinking lights. They make me nervous.

    I do love to drive around and look at the decorations. We don't always manage but we should try harder.

    You know what I love best of all? A live Nativity scene. One of the churches in town does one and I cannot stay away from it. They Guy wen to church there when he was teenager and was in that nativity scene but will not satisfy my need to know about the details. He doesn't remember who he was. He doesn't remember what he wore. He doesn't remember where they got the animals. He doesn't remember if he was ever in charge of the donkey. He doesn't remember who played Mary and and the angel.

    Who could forget that?

  5. Wow! Cheryl, I'm late to your post and I do apologize, but it's fabulous!

    Society tends to take for granted where things originated from. I'm grateful to you for providing the history of Christmas lights for us so that we'll never take them for granted again.

    When I was young we had the big bulbs too. Then we moved to smaller lights and as a kid I always wanted the ones that blinked. Blinking lights were so cool! We used colored lights when the kids were small, but I've moved on to plain white lights. There's something beautiful about the simple glow of a tree lit with white lights. Also, white light brings out definition in the tree's branches, creates shadows within the tree and reflects ornaments to glorious effect.

    Big bulbs are in vogue again. I saw them in the stores this year. What's old is new again!

    I would love to see a live Nativity scene and I have watching the Passion produced on the wildlife refuge in Oklahoma. That was an awesome experience.

    Live Christmas Trees filled with singing choir members are also very cool! The Mormon Tabernacle Choir does something similiar and I know we have various types within our own town.

    We used to take the kids through the Botanical Gardens at Christmas. The lighting is always spectacular there every year.

  6. I just got back from a trip to Callaway Gardens and Stone Mountain. Stone Mountain uses MILLIONS of tiny lights to light up everything. I can't imagine the cost of the bulbs in today's dollars, much less those of Mr. Edison's time.

    There used to be a house on Highway 69 between Arab and Cullman where they put lights on everything. It was written up in Guideposts magazine. I wonder if they still do that. I remember driving my kids to see it and traffic was backed up for miles because it was quite a sight.