December 2013 E-News: The Curious Evolution of Holiday Lights!

Christmas lights are the most recognizable sign of the season. These lights warm up the coldest of December nights – giving a nostalgic glow to our homes & communities. Even though we are so familiar with these traditional holiday lights, there is a bit of background science that you may not know.

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The Curious Evolution of Holiday Lights!

During the Holidays, we see all types of colorful lights! People decorate the outside and inside of their homes with lights that are switched on ceremoniously in neighborhoods across the globe. This tradition dates back to the 17thcentury when people first began putting lights on their Christmas trees by attaching small candles to the branches using wax or pins, according to the Great Idea Finder. But, it wasn’t until the late 19thcentury, that decorating with small glass lanterns with lit candles really took off. As a result of using candles, most people didn’t put up their lights until Christmas Eve due to the risk of fire. 

In 1882, one of Thomas Edison’s apprentices, Edward Johnson, created the first lit Christmas Tree for the Holiday Season. This tree was in New York City and had 80 small electric lights he called “dainty glass eggs.” Edward Johnson invented the first string of electric lights.

These electric lights; however, posed a danger as they heated up tender Evergreen branches and needles. Albert Sadacca created safe electric Christmas lights in 1917. The first year, the lights were all white. But, the following year, he made colorful Christmas lights that became a sensation in homes across the country. 

Lights are also an essential Hanukkah tradition. A candelabrum (lamp stand) with nine branches, called a menorah, is lit during the 8-day Hanukkah holiday. In the Jewish tradition, the menorah brings light to this time of year.

Modern LED Holiday Lights


For decades, incandescent light bulbs have decorated Christmas trees, window panes, and the outside of homes with bright colors during the Holidays. However, older incandescent light bulbs pose some problems. These strings of lights actually use a lot of energy, the older bulbs can also get very hot after running for long periods of time, and we’ve all taken part in the greatest holiday mystery of all time…”Which bulb is causing the strand of lights to go out?!”

Fortunately, scientists have invented LED light bulbs that solve these problems. LED stands for Light-Emitting Diodes. These modern bulbs use 10% of the electricity needed for incandescent light bulbs! LED bulbs are much cooler so they are much safer. For an extra bonus, LED bulbs last for an extremely long time & eliminate the search for the string outage culprit! For the holidays, you will see all colors, shapes, and sizes of LEDs decorating homes for the season. 

A Long Way From Candles

The basic foundation of the Christmas light, the incandescent bulb, hardly changed for nearly a century, and is only now undergoing its first major revolution as we start replacing our old tungsten lights with energy-efficient LEDs. Yet in that same time, we’ve gone from sticking burning candles in a tree to creating massive, computer-controlled – and completely excessive – light displays like this:

One thing’s for sure: No matter what the technology at hand, no matter what the reason to celebrate, the human desire to light up trees and houses in December will forever be a source for amazing – and often hilarious – innovation.

So, where do the old Christmas lights go? 

Around this time every year, millions of American households not only toss out their Christmas trees, but also, millions of strands of burnt-out Christmas lights. While they are supposed to be placed in the recycling bin, most would end up at the garbage dump if it were not for a tiny town all the way across the world called Shijiao located in Southern China.

That’s because, while there is no market for the lights in the USA, there is a great demand for the raw materials that spring from these discarded decorations in China, an opportunity that the small town of Shijiaohas capitalized on, for almost twenty years. Today, over 20 million pounds of discarded lights make their way to the town’s nine recycling facilities.

Once there, they go through a rather complicated process that separates the flecks of precious metals (copper from the wire and brass from the light sockets) from the plastic and glass that the insulation and bulbs are made from.

The strands are first manually untangled and then placed into a shredder that chops them up into tiny pieces. These are then mixed with water and shaken – upon which the heavier metal flecks flow in one direction, while the lighter plastic and glass flow in another – similar to how old miners used to pan gold. The respective materials are then accumulated and sold to Chinese manufacturers who turn them into all kinds of different products including, slipper soles!

So the next time you buy a product made in China, be sure to look at it closely – For somewhere in them you may see a glimmer of your tossed Christmas lights.

As the days get shorter and the nights get darker, we welcome colorful Holiday lights! As you decorate around your home with lights, don’t forget that you, too, can create a fun, colorful magic light box to wow your friends and family with this month’s at-home experiment!

This year, as you begin to string the lights around the Christmas tree remember that you are continuing a tradition that goes back hundreds of years! In addition to holiday lights, some of our other favorite holiday products, from decorations to toys, have surprising origins, too!  Ever wondered where tinsel comes from and why we drape it over the trees? Or have you ever asked yourself when people started to wrap their presents in paper? Learn the history of these and other interesting holiday inventions here.

Editor’s Note: One of the best resources I found for this guide came from His is a six-part series, the first three of which I consulted before writing this article. If you want to read more about the subject, check out the following sources:
Part 1: History of Christmas Lights
Part 2: Modern Lamp Types and Sizes
Part 3: Form Factors of Christmas Lights
Part 4: Christmas Light Power and Safety (new)