Thursday 27 November 2008

Christmas lights, a brief history

One of the (few) joys of shopping at this time of year is seeing the christmas lights. Granted, some are dull and uninspired, others are blatantly commercial and sponsored, occasionally they miss the seasonal point altogether, and the saddest are just a bit sparse. Regent Street's belly-flopping stars (above) just make you think, 'why?' A happy few, like these fab giant snowmen on Carnaby Street and Jermyn Street's christmas trees, do get it pretty much right. Nonetheless, however imperfect they may be, seasonal lights definitely make the dark evenings that bit more bearable.

While lighting festive candles in winter has a very ancient history, the displays we see today are obviously more recent in origin: they depend upon the availability of electricity. The first electric christmas lights appeared in 1882 - just three years after the invention of the light bulb - when Edward Johnson of the Edison Electric Light Company lit up a christmas tree in his New York home. Its eighty lights were red, white and blue. By the end of the century strings of lights were being mass-produced, and by 1900 the department stores had taken up the new technology.

In the mid-twentieth century, the lighting displays spread out of the stores and into the streets (see a gallery of photos here). Regent Street first lit up in 1954, after an article in the Daily Telegraph commented on how drab London looked; except for a gap in the 1970s, it has had an annual display ever since. Oxford Street followed suit in 1959 - with a decade-long break from 1967 to 1978 - and trips to see the christmas lights have been a valuable way of attracting shoppers. The switching on of the lights continues to be a feature of the seasonal calendar - although it now seems to have moved back to early November. (Rare London exceptions include Hampstead, holding out until Saturday, and the Trafalgar Square tree which isn't switched on until 4 December).

And those light-less years in the 1970s? They were due to a recession - so perhaps we should all make a special effort this year to enjoy our christmas lights while we can!


Melanie Seasons said...

To me, this year's lights just look like spider webs. When I saw them I literally asked myself why they were lit before they were finished.

Anonymous said...

I'm rather fond of them myself...I love the parades of light you get at this time of year. I attended one in Lodi last year, with everybody standing in the pouring rain, and years ago there was one in Somerset.

I actually kind of like the atom ones though; they're rather unique!

CarolineLD said...

I did only realise this year's were star-shaped when I was stood in the middle of the road - not the ideal viewing position to plan for!

Linda, was the one in Somerset one of the carnivals? I lived in Bridgwater for years so used to go regularly!

Anonymous said...

I think so--in fact it may even have been Bridgwater. I was there in the early 90s, so I can't quite remember, but I do recall how wonderful it was. There were lots of floats and lights. :)