From Thomas Edison to Clark Griswold and Beyond: A History of Holiday Lights

Like many great marketing ideas, electric Christmas lights began as a PR gimmick. In 1882, Thomas Edison’s hype man, Edward Hibberd Johnson, hand strung 80 of what’s largely considered the first electric Christmas lights on a tree in his home on West 36th Street in Manhattan. The electric bulbs were a welcome alternative to the flickering flames of candles that dominated holiday light displays and served as a fire hazard until Edison’s update came along. But electricity wasn’t widespread (or affordable) for nearly 50 more years. Nevertheless, Johnson earns the title of the forefather of Christmas lights, predating Clark Griswold’s fiasco by more than a century.

The holiday lights dominating today’s market have come a long way since the incandescent bulbs that blew the fuse on the Griswold family’s light display in 1989. Today’s LED bulbs use 75-80% less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs and last more than 10 times longer. That means your family’s holiday light display can wow your neighbors without the jaw-dropping electric bill.

The latest LEDs are also available in a wide variety of colors. The first generation of LED lights often got knocked by vintage holiday light enthusiasts for their blueish tint. These days you can get LEDs in every shape, size, and color—from the warm white that mimics incandescent bulbs to snowflake-shaped lights or net lights that cover whole outdoor areas at once. 

In order to understand the nationwide impact of holiday lights, the energy company Arcadia attempted to take a comprehensive look at the industry’s impact on the energy sector a couple of years ago. According to Forbes, Arcadia found that Americans use 3.5 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity to power their holiday lights during the month of December. That’s roughly the equivalent of powering 350,000 homes for the year—a staggering strain to add to the power grid. 

Holiday traditions are well and good, but just as Edison’s electric bulbs replaced their flammable, candlelit counterparts by the 1930s, it’s a good idea to embrace the more efficient LED bulbs that represent a new era of holiday lights. A 75% reduction in electric use is significant, and as holiday light displays continue to get crazier and crazier, LEDs are a change we should all be able to embrace to reduce our energy bill and our carbon footprint.