The story of the world's first Christmas tree with electric lights - The Bowery Boys: New York City History (2023)

The world’s very first Christmas tree with electric lights was displayed in 1882 at the home of Edward Hibberd Johnson in the Murray Hill neighborhood of New York City.

Not only did it glow with this innovative new form of illumination, this Christmas tree also spun around, revolving like a flashy new car at an automobile expo.

The story of the world's first Christmas tree with electric lights - The Bowery Boys: New York City History (1)

Two years later in 1884 the New York Times looked back fondly upon this greatly advanced version of the Christmas tree:

The tree was lighted by electricity and children never beheld a brighter tree or one more highly colored than the children of Mr. Johnson when the current was turned and the tree began to revolve.

It stood about six feet high, in an upper room, and dazzled persons entering the room. There were 120 lights on the tree, with globes of different colors, while the light tinsel work and unusual adornment of Christmas trees appeared to their best advantage in illuminating the tree.

“The set of lights were turned off and on at regular intervals as the tree turned around. The first combination was of pure white light then as the revolving tree tree severed the connection of the current that supplied it and made connection with the second set, red and white lights appeared. Then came yellow and white and other colors.”

The children of Mr. Johnson were witnessing a revolution. Yes an actual revolution – of the tree itself – but the beginning of an entirely new way of celebrating the holiday.

The story of the world's first Christmas tree with electric lights - The Bowery Boys: New York City History (2)

Surrounded by his wealthy investors, Thomas Edison gave the first public demonstraton of the incandescent lightbulb on December 31, 1879.

Now, believe it or not, New Yorkers were already accustomed to electric illumination during the Christmas season. The major Manhattan shopping districts were already exposed to stadium-like arc lighting, a primitive form of electric light that was too harsh and intense for everyday usage.

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But Edison’s invention was vastly superior and itwouldn’t just drive away the dark. In its compact size, its durability and eventual convenience, the lightbulb would elaborate on one of candlelight’s most appealing components – mood.

The next year, on December 20, 1880, Edison had additional investors out to Menlo Park, and they were greeted with an extraordinary site.

From the NYT: “The train arrived at Menlo Park at 5:31. Darkness had settled down upon the bleak and uninviting place which Mr. Edison had chosen for his home, but the plank walk from the station to the laboratory was brilliantly lighted by a double row of electric lamps, which cast a soft and mellow light on all sides.

The incandescent horseshoes gave out a yellow light which shone steadily and without the least painful glare and were beautiful to look upon.”

While this was not intentionally a Christmas lighting display, the arriving investors, in the holiday spirit, remarked upon the appropriate warmth and charm of the lights on the chilly December evening.

The light bulb would change the world but it would also make Edison a lot of money.

Soon Edison began aggressively promoting the various ways that electric lighting could be used to improve life – the more reasons, the more likely other investors would sign on and the more likely cities would hire Edison to install electricalpower stations.

That is precisely what happened in New York on Sept 4, 1882, with the first commercial power plant in the world began operation in lower Manhattan on Pearl Street.

The story of the world's first Christmas tree with electric lights - The Bowery Boys: New York City History (3)

For the first time, the homes and offices of lower Manhattan would be able to light their interiors more pleasantly and conveniently than those homes with gaslight.

Whereas as the illuminations from gas would often create a sickly glow, the light from an electric glass bulb would seem romantic and alluring in comparison. Finally the candle had some competition.

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The story of the world's first Christmas tree with electric lights - The Bowery Boys: New York City History (4)

Further uptown, at the home of Edison’s friend and the vice president of the Edison Electric Company Edward Hibberd Johnson (pictured above), electricity was taking the place of a rather hazardous form of decoration.

For Johnson’s electric-tree idea took his inspiration from traditional candle-lit trees.

The story of the world's first Christmas tree with electric lights - The Bowery Boys: New York City History (5)

In the early 19th century a Christmas tree was considered a luxury of the urban rich who could afford to have a tree cut down for them and installed in their homes.But by the 1850s people could purchase trees at the market and carry them home to decorate for the season.

The most beautiful trees — the ones that seemed to fully embody the spirit of the season — were decorated with lit candles.

Getting a candle to stick in a tree was not easy. Some held the melted wax to branches, others pierced the candle with needles, tying them to the tree that way.

The story of the world's first Christmas tree with electric lights - The Bowery Boys: New York City History (6)

In 1878 an inventor named Frederick Artz devised a spring clip that could hold candles to the branches.

Now a family could attach lit candles to a Christmas tree and know — with just a touch more assurance — that the waxen dagger would not fall into the branches and burn the house down.

Keep in mind that in the 19th century Christmas trees were only installed in homes for only a few days. People did not lavishly decorate a month and a half before like we do today.

And trees were more closely monitored then. Next to the presents underneath the tree was a bucket of water.

By 1908, some insurance companies refused to cover fires started by candle accidents on Christmas trees, claiming they were a clear and knowing risk.

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The story of the world's first Christmas tree with electric lights - The Bowery Boys: New York City History (7)

So you can understand why people absolutely lit up at the idea of a Christmas tree with electric lights.

In January 1883, the journal Electrical World called Johnson’s tree on Madison Avenue the handsomest tree in the United States.

Pictures would suggest otherwise, although photographic process of the early 1880s were hardly equipt to capture such a unique and peculiar things – a rotating, brilliantly and colorful lit object of natural art.

But of course it wasn’t art. It was promotion.

With each year, Johnson would continue to let in the press into his home to report his unusual holiday marvel.

In addition he would install similar trees in places where Edison electrical power would soon be made available.

For instance, for Christmas 1883, he put up a much larger display tree at the Foreign Exposition in Boston at Mechanics Hall in Boston’s Back Bay.

From a 1904 history of Edison lighting:

“At the Boston Foreign Fair, about 1,500 Edison lamps were employed and the Christmas tree took several hundred more.

This tree was deisgned to be operated by an automatic device which would make the light of the lamps appear and disappear in time with whatever music might be played and it was manipulated by means of a keyboard of switches, the operator being concealed at the base of the tree.

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The effect was so pleasing that Christine Nilsson, the Swedish Nightingale, who was in the audience begged to be allowed to manipulate it.”

All these wondrous, grandious displays were all for the general promotion of electrical power and not for the production of Christmas home decorating products themselves.

For at least two decades after Johnson’s extraordinary display, electric Christmas sets for the home were sheer novelty and clearly for the richest participants of the Gilded Age, those who could afford electricians and personal generators.

The story of the world's first Christmas tree with electric lights - The Bowery Boys: New York City History (8)

Consumers wouldn’t get to affordably light their home Christmas trees until the 20th century. Well, affordably can be debated.

In 1903, General Electric would finally make strings or festoons of miniature incadesent lamps – with bulbs of all colors — available for home holiday decorating. 24 bulbs for just $12! In 1903 dollars. That’s about $325 dollars today.

To decorate a tree of any meaningful size would require holiday revelers take a small mortgage out on their house.

But of course, by this time, Christmas in America was already being defined by thresholds of wealth. Christmas meant spending.

So for some, spending a week’s paycheck on Christmas lights might have been worth the heartache.

The story of the world's first Christmas tree with electric lights - The Bowery Boys: New York City History (9)

For some of course, it made more sense to RENT Christmas lights, a popular option in the year 1900.

From a General Electric Ad that year: “Edison Miniature Lamps for Christmas Treets. No Danger, Smoke or Smell. Lamps either rented or sold. Full directions furnished, enabling anyone to readily wire and put up the lamps.”

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Who created the first electrically lit Christmas tree? ›

Edward H. Johnson put the very first string of electric Christmas tree lights together in 1882. Johnson, Edison's friend and partner in the Edison's Illumination Company, hand-wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs and wound them around his Christmas tree.

What's the history of the Christmas tree? ›

Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce.

Who displayed the first electrically illuminated Christmas tree in his home in what city on December 22 1882? ›

When Johnson was Vice President of the Edison Electric Light Company, a predecessor of Con Edison, he created the first known electrically illuminated Christmas tree at his home in New York City in 1882. Edward H. Johnson became the Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights.

Which president banned Christmas trees? ›

President Theodore Roosevelt, an avowed conservationist forbid Christmas trees at the White House, but his children surprised the president by hiding a tree in a sewing room closet. December 1903.

When was the first electric Christmas tree? ›

In 1904, The Del – already considered a technological marvel – made history when it unveiled the world's first electrically lit, outdoor, living Christmas tree. Holiday lights were strung from the hotel to a nearby Norfolk Island Pine.

Which 2 men invented the first Christmas tree light? ›

We can trace the birth of the first large Christmas lighting display back to that man Edison again, and in particular one of his protégés, Edward H. Johnson.

What does the Christmas tree mean in the Bible? ›

( Christmas trees were symbolic as a metaphor that Jesus died and rose again in splendor in the same way a tree was cut down to its own death to be placed upward again in glory and splendor. The gifts surrounding would represent the greatest gift that Jesus gave to us of His glory, forgiveness, and love.

What does the Christmas tree mean to Christians? ›

In Christianity, Christmas tree is symbolic of birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The tree's branches and shrubs are viewed as an emblem of immortality and are said to symbolize the crown of thorns worn by Christ on the cross.

What is the real name of the Christmas tree? ›

Traditional Norway Spruce (Picea Abies)

Norway Spruce is the traditional Christmas tree which has been popular since Victoria times with short and thin, varying bright and deep green pointed needles.

What is the oldest Christmas tree lighting in America? ›

Perkasie's ceremony began in 1909 and is now in its 114th year. It was officially recognized as the oldest in the US in 2015, when it was read into the Congressional Record by Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick.

What is the spiritual meaning of Christmas lights? ›

Lights and Candles

May the beautiful lights of every holiday season remind us of Him who is the source of all light.” 1 Christmas lights can remind us that Jesus Christ is the Light of the World. They can also remind us to be lights to others and to help others come unto Christ.

What city has the most illuminated Christmas tree? ›

The worlds most illuminated Christmas tree in Osaka, Japan | Christmas tree outside, Christmas images, Pretty christmas.

What President banned Christmas lights? ›

So it was on with the space suit and down into the archives and into the circle of hell that was 1973, when President Nixon told America to turn off the electrical holiday cheer.

What image does McDonald's put on their bags during Christmas? ›

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The most popular item to put on top of a Christmas tree is?angel
McDonald's puts what holiday image on bags during the Christmas season?trees
In "Jingle Bell Rock" everyone is dancing and prancing. Where do they do it?Jingle Bell Square
5 more rows

Why do we put a star on top of the Christmas tree? ›

The Star of Bethlehem

The star signifies the birth of Christ (or Messiah).

What is the oldest Christmas tree ever? ›

The Moravian Christians put lighted candles on those trees." The earliest known firmly dated representation of a Christmas tree is on the keystone sculpture of a private home in Turckheim, Alsace (then part of Germany, today France), with the date 1576.

What is the oldest Christmas tree? ›

Paul Parker (UK) owns an artificial Christmas tree that has been in his family since 1886. It stands 30 cm (1 ft) tall in an ornate pot and was originally bought for his great-great Aunt Lou, possibly from Woolworths. It was bequeathed to Paul by his mother, Janet, in 2008, continuing the tradition.

What were the original colors of Christmas lights? ›

In 1882, the first Christmas tree to be lit by electric lights was seen in New York. It was lit by Edward Johnson who happened to be a friend of Thomas Edison. The Christmas tree was lit with beautiful red, white, and blue lights, which still favorites of many today.

Why do we put Christmas lights on houses? ›

Lighting up the darkness is a very old tradition

Hundreds of years ago, Norsemen celebrated the midwinter holiday Yule, which featured a burning log in every home hearth along with celebrations and song. The tradition spread throughout Europe, and for Christians the light in the darkness came to symbolize Jesus.

What is a tree with fake snow called? ›

What is a flocked Christmas tree? A flocked Christmas tree, or "flocking a Christmas tree," simply refers to the process by which many people around the word capture the real feeling of a winter wonderland via a generous dusting of artificial snow.

Who sold the first pre lit Christmas tree? ›

In the early 1990s the world's largest artificial Christmas tree maker, Boto Company (bankrupted in January 2008) started the first production of pre-lit trees supplied to Target stores.

Is Christmas tree related to Jesus? ›

Although the Christmas tree is full of symbolic meaning for the Christian tradition, there is no immediate connection between Jesus and this particular practice. In fact, the evergreen has a rich history of religious significance among pagan cultures, which is why some Christians have rejected the tradition outright.

When was Jesus actually born? ›

The date of birth of Jesus is not stated in the gospels or in any historical sources, but most biblical scholars generally accept a date of birth between 6 BC and 4 BC, the year in which King Herod died.

Is there any mention of Christmas in the Bible? ›

Dec. 25 is not the date mentioned in the Bible as the day of Jesus's birth; the Bible is actually silent on the day or the time of year when Mary was said to have given birth to him in Bethlehem. The earliest Christians did not celebrate his birth.

Is it biblical to put up a Christmas tree? ›

Is It A Sin To Put Up A Christmas Tree? Christmas trees are acceptable for Christians as long as they do not elevate them to the level of an idol. The Bible never instructs Christians on whether or not to have Christmas trees, but it instructs Christians to forsake all other gods and worship only God.

Is Christmas tree allowed in Christianity? ›

Can Christians have Christmas trees? Christians can have Christmas trees if they don't make it or other parts of Christmas an idol over Jesus. The Bible never tells Christians if they should have Christmas trees or not, but the Bible does tell Christians to reject any idols in their lives and worship Him alone.

Is Christmas tree in the Bible? ›

Deuteronomy 16:21 says:

Although this verse doesn't speak directly to christmas trees, it does make a point to mention trees near the altar of the lord. Some believe this means trees shouldn't represent the birth of Jesus, but others believe this verse doesn't have anything to do with Christmas.

What is a pagan Christmas tree? ›

Pagans would bring fir trees into their homes at Yuletide because it represented everlasting life and fertility. The Yule tree is decorated with lights, candles, and other festive ornaments to celebrate the return of light after dark days.

Is a Christmas tree a religious symbol? ›

Even though Christmas trees once carried religious connotations, the Supreme Court found that a Christmas tree, by itself, is not a religious symbol.

Is there a Christmas tree symbol? ›

The symbol of the Christmas tree was adopted from the pagan tradition and adopted into the Christian tradition. Because Christmas is the holiday that celebrates the birth of Christ, as a light in the dark world, the lit tree was a reminder of that light.

Where is America's first Christmas tree? ›

Head down to Scott Park at the forks of the Delaware and you'll see a sign proudly proclaiming that America's first Christmas tree was decorated here in 1816. A clearly newer evergreen is planted next to the marker as representation.

What city decorated the first Christmas tree? ›


1510, the first written record of a decorated Christmas Tree comes from Riga, Latvia. Men of the local merchants' guild decorated a tree with artificial roses, danced around it in the marketplace and then set fire to it.

What country started the tradition of Christmas trees? ›

But the real origins of Christmas trees appear to be rooted in present-day Germany during the Middle Ages. In 1419, a guild in Freiburg put up a tree decorated with apples, flour-paste wafers, tinsel and gingerbread.

Which US president was the first to light up an outdoor national Christmas tree with electric lights in 1923? ›

On December 24, 1923, President Calvin Coolidge touches a button and lights up the first national Christmas tree to grace the White House grounds.

Who was the first company to sell pre wired holiday lights? ›

Two years later, GE sold the first sets of pre-wired Christmas lights—known as “festoons”—which included miniature-base carbon filament lamps; string lights were first certified by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) in 1905.

Who was the first president who started the lighting of the National Christmas Tree hint he was president from 1923 1929? ›

On December 24, 1923, President Calvin Coolidge participated in the first National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony on the Ellipse. Since 1923, the president's participation in this public tree lighting has become an annual tradition.

What hotel was the first lit Christmas tree displayed at? ›

In 1904, the Hotel Del Coronado made world history when the hotel unveiled the world's first outdoor, electrified, living Christmas tree in the world! Before electric Christmas lights, trees were illuminated with candles.


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