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.”

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Long and Winding Road to New Year’s

 

The hour, date and kind of celebration have changed century to century

With its loud TV hosts, drunken parties and awful singing, New Year’s Eve might seem to have been around forever. Yet when it comes to the timing and treatment of the  holiday, our version of New Year’s—the eve and day itself—is a relatively recent tradition.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The Babylonians celebrated New Year’s in March, when the vernal equinox—a day of equal light and darkness—takes place. To them, New Year’s was a time of pious reckoning rather than raucous partying. The Egyptians got the big parties going: Their celebration fell in line with the annual flooding of the Nile River. It was a chance to get roaring drunk for a few weeks rather just for a few hours. The holiday’s timing, though, was the opposite of ours, in July.

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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: Breaking Up Has Always Been Hard to Do

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

As Valentine’s Day draws near, let’s not forget its Roman ancestor: the festival of Lupercalia, a fertility rite (celebrated every Ides of February) that was about as romantic as a trip to the abattoir. The highlight of the day involved priests dipping their whips into goat’s blood and trolling the streets of Rome, playfully slapping any women who passed by. The ancients had no use for frilly hearts and chocolates.

Nevertheless, our classical forbears did know a few things about the flip side of Valentine’s Day: the art of the breakup. The Romans were masters of the poetic put-down. The 1st-century poet Ovid could offer some exquisitely worded insults; here is Elegy VI in his “Amores,” as translated by Christopher Marlowe in the 16th century: “Either she was foul, or her attire was bad,/ Or she was not the wench I wished t’ have had./ Idly I lay with her, as if I loved not,/ And like a burden grieved the bed that moved not.”

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Resolved: No More New Year’s Resolutions

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Few New Year’s resolutions actually make it past January. If everyone followed through on their resolutions, the consequences for humanity would be dire: The fast-food industry would collapse, the gym would become unbearably crowded, and lifestyle magazines would have nothing left to say.

It is human nature to start off the year with a host of resolutions. The ancient Babylonians are known to have done it. The Romans even made a virtue of it, leaving us with January—named after Janus, the god of new beginnings.

The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, scorned the idea. It wasn’t humanity they doubted but the willingness of the gods to refrain from interfering in our affairs. “Men should pledge themselves to nothing, for reflection makes a liar of their resolution,” wrote Sophocles. Indeed, at the heart of almost every Greek myth was a warning of the terrible fate that awaited those who believed that all things were within their control. From Arachne to Oedipus, the message was clear: Don’t challenge the power of the gods lest you end up as a spider, or killing your father and marrying your mother.

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