Historically Speaking: Electric Lights for Yuletide

In 1882, Thomas Edison’s business partner put up a Christmas tree decorated with 80 red, white and blue bulbs—and launched an American tradition.

The Wall Street Journal, December 5, 2019

As a quotation often attributed to Maya Angelou has it, ‘’You can tell a lot about a person by the way (s)he handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage and tangled Christmas tree lights.” I’m not sure what it says about me that I actually look forward to getting my hands on the latter. My house is so brightly decorated with energy-saving LEDs that it could double as a landing beacon on a foggy night. It’s the one thing I really missed when I lived abroad—no other country does Christmas lights like America. More than 80 million households put up lighting displays each December, creating a seasonal spike in U.S. energy use that’s bigger than the annual consumption of some small countries.

Holiday lights in Brooklyn, 2015. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Hanging festive lighting during the winter solstice is an ancient practice, but the modern version owes its origins to Thomas Edison and his business partner Edward H. Johnson. Edison perfected the first fully functional lightbulb in 1879. For Christmas the following year, he strung up lights outside his Menlo Park factory—partly to provide good cheer but mostly to advertise the benefits of electrification. Johnson went one further in 1882, placing a Christmas tree decorated with 80 red, white and blue blinking lightbulbs on a revolving turntable in his parlor window in Manhattan.

Johnson repeated the display every year, much to the delight of New Yorkers, striving to make it bigger and better each time. He thus founded the other great American tradition: the competitive light display. The first person to take up Johnson’s challenge was President Grover Cleveland, who in 1894 erected an enormous multi-light Christmas tree in the White House, thereby starting a new presidential tradition.

The initial $300 price tag for an electrified Christmas tree (about $2,000 today) put it beyond the reach of the average consumer. The alternative was clip-on candles, but they were so hazardous that by 1910 most home insurance policies contained a nonpayment clause for house fires caused by candlelit Christmas trees. Although it was possible to rent electric Christmas lights for the season, and the General Electric Company was beginning to produce easy-to-assemble kits, the stark difference between lit and unlit homes threatened to become a powerful symbol of social inequality.

Fortunately, a New Yorker named Emilie D. Lee Herreshoff was on the case. She persuaded the city council to allow an electrified Christmas tree to be put up in Madison Square Park. The inaugural tree-lighting celebration, on December 24, 1912, generated so much public enthusiasm that within two years over 300 cities and towns were holding similar ceremonies.

Not content with just one festive tree, in 1920 the city of Pasadena, Calif., agreed to light up the 150 mature evergreens lining Santa Rosa Avenue, leading to its nickname “Christmas Tree Lane.” This was quite a feat of electrical engineering, given that outdoor Christmas lights didn’t become commercially available until 1927.

To encourage buyers, GE began sponsoring local holiday lighting contests, unleashing a competitive spirit each Yuletide that only seems to have grown stronger with the passing decades. Since 2014, the Guinness Book of World Records title for the most lights on a private residence has been held by the Gay family of LaGrangeville, N.Y., with strong competition from Australia. To which I say, “God bless them, everyone.”

Historically Speaking: Trees of Life and Wonder

From Saturnalia to Christmas Eve, people have always had a spiritual need for greenery in the depths of winter

The Wall Street Journal, December 13, 2018

Queen Victoria and family with their Christmas tree in 1848. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

My family never had a pink-frosted Christmas tree, though Lord knows my 10-year-old self really wanted one. Every year my family went to Sal’s Christmas Emporium on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, where you could buy neon-colored trees, mechanical trees that played Christmas carols, blue and white Hanukkah bushes or even a real Douglas fir if you wanted to go retro. We were solidly retro.

Decorating the Christmas tree remains one of my most treasured memories, and according to the National Christmas Tree Association, the tradition is still thriving in our digital age: In 2017 Americans bought 48.5 million real and artificial Christmas trees. Clearly, bringing a tree into the house, especially during winter, taps into something deeply spiritual in the human psyche.

Nearly every society has at some point venerated the tree as a symbol of fertility and rebirth, or as a living link between the heavens, the earth and the underworld. In the ancient Near East, “tree of life” motifs appear on pottery as early as 7000 B.C. By the second millennium B.C., variations of the motif were being carved onto temple walls in Egypt and fashioned into bronze sculptures in southern China.

The early Christian fathers were troubled by the possibility that the faithful might identify the Garden of Eden’s trees of life and knowledge, described in the Book of Genesis, with paganism’s divine trees and sacred groves. Accordingly, in 572 the Council of Braga banned Christians from participating in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia—a popular winter solstice festival in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture, that included decking the home with boughs of holly, his sacred symbol.

It wasn’t until the late Middle Ages that evergreens received a qualified welcome from the Church, as props in the mystery plays that told the story of Creation. In Germany, mystery plays were performed on Christmas Eve, traditionally celebrated in the church calendar as the feast day of Adam and Eve. The original baubles that hung on these “paradise trees,” representing the trees in the Garden of Eden, were round wafer breads that symbolized the Eucharist.

The Christmas tree remained a northern European tradition until Queen Charlotte, the German-born wife of George III, had one erected for a children’s party at Windsor Castle in 1800. The British upper classes quickly followed suit, but the rest of the country remained aloof until 1848, when the London Illustrated News published a charming picture of Queen Victoria and her family gathered around a large Christmas tree. Suddenly, every household had to have one for the children to decorate. It didn’t take long for President Franklin Pierce to introduce the first Christmas tree to the White House, in 1853—a practice that every President has honored except Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1902 refused to have a tree on conservationist grounds. (His children objected so much to the ban that he eventually gave in.)

Many writers have tried to capture the complex feelings that Christmas trees inspire, particularly in children. Few, though, can rival T.S. Eliot’s timeless meditation on joy, death and life everlasting, in his 1954 poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”: “The child wonders at the Christmas Tree: / Let him continue in the spirit of wonder / At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext; / So that the glittering rapture, the amazement / Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree /…May not be forgotten.”

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Ancient Magic of Mistletoe

The plant’s odyssey from a Greek festival to a role in the works of Dickens and Trollope

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Is mistletoe naughty or nice? The No. 1 hit single for Christmas 1952 was young Jimmy Boyd warbling how he caught “mommy kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe last night.” It may very well have been daddy in costume—but, if not, that would make mistletoe very naughty indeed. For this plant, that would be par for the course.

Mistletoe, in its various species, is found all over the world and has played a part in fertility rituals for thousands of years. The plant’s ability to live off other trees—it’s a parasite—and remain evergreen even in the dead of winter awed the earliest agricultural societies. Mistletoe became a go-to plant for sacred rites and poetic inspiration.

Kissing under the mistletoe may have begun with the Greeks’ Kronia agricultural festival. Its Roman successor, the Saturnalia, combined licentious behavior with mistletoe. The naturalist Pliny the Elder, who died in A.D. 79, noticed to his surprise that mistletoe was just as sacred, if not more, to the Druids of Gaul. Its growth on certain oak trees, which the Druids believed to possess magical powers, spurred them to use mistletoe in ritual sacrifices and medicinal potions to cure ailments such as infertility.

Mistletoe’s mystical properties also earned it a starring role in the 13th-century Old Norse collection of mythical tales known as the Prose Edda. Here mistletoe becomes a deadly weapon in the form of an arrow that kills the sun-god Baldur. His mother Frigga, the goddess of love and marriage, weeps tears that turn into white mistletoe berries. In some versions, this brings Baldur back to life, carrying faint echoes of the reincarnation myths of ancient Mesopotamia. Either way, Frigga declares mistletoe to be the symbol of peace and love.

Beliefs about mistletoe’s powers managed to survive the Catholic Church’s official disapproval for all things pagan. People used the plant as a totem to scare away trolls, thwart witchcraft, prevent fires and bring about reconciliations. But such superstitions fizzled out in the wake of the Enlightenment.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: The Glory Days of Frankincense and Myrrh

Photo: PRINT COLLECTOR/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: PRINT COLLECTOR/GETTY IMAGES

The Magi, the three wise men, famously offered the baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We can still understand why they brought gold, but what Mary and Joseph were meant to do with the frankincense and myrrh—resins derived from the Boswellia and Commiphora trees—has become less obvious.

The usual explanation for the Magi’s gifts is that they symbolized the trajectory of Jesus’ life: gold to announce his divine origins and kingship, frankincense (which was burned in religious ceremonies) to declare his future role as a priest, and myrrh (which was used in burials) to represent his suffering and death.

But to the ancients, the significance of frankincense and myrrh went far beyond their spiritual symbolism. Both commodities had played a central role in daily life since the dawn of civilization. The resins were introduced to Egypt in the third millennium B.C. from the Land of Punt (thought to have been somewhere between Ethiopia and Eritrea).

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‘WSJ Historically Speaking: Tis the Season to Stop Fighting

PETER ARKLE

PETER ARKLE

For some, a traditional Christmas means church and carols; for others, it means presents under the tree. But for countless millions, Christmas also means a day of epic family arguments. As the novelist Graham Greene once observed, “Christmas it seems to me is a necessary festival; we require a season when we can regret all the flaws in our human relationships: it is the feast of failure, sad but consoling.”

A recent survey conducted for the British hotel chain TraveLodge appears to support Greene’s gloomy contention. Two years ago, the chain noticed a sharp upswing in bookings for Christmas Day. Hoping to capitalize on the trend, its marketing department commissioned a poll of 2,500 households to see how the typical British family spends Christmas Day. The findings offered few useful insights for the company but proved a gold mine for sociologists.
The respondents revealed that, on average, the first fight of the day takes place no later than 10:13 a.m., usually after the discovery that someone has consumed all the chocolate. A lull then ensues while presents are opened and the drinks cabinet raided. At 11:42 or so, the children express their disappointment with their haul while the parents become enraged by their lack of gratitude. At noon comes a “discussion” of the level of alcohol consumption before lunch, followed by simmering tension until everyone finally sits down to eat around 2:23. The fragile truce established during the turkey carving is destroyed by a massive family row at 3:24. Exhaustion then sets in until 6:05, when tempers flare over the remote control. At 10:15, there is one final blowup before everyone goes to bed.

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