Sunday 28 November 2010

From the archives: Christmas lights, a brief history

As many of London's lights have been reused this year - the belly-flopping stars in Regent Street are on at least their third appearance - a similarly sustainable recycling of this post seems rather apt!

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.

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!

1 comment:

Hels said...

There is something very fairyland and magical about small lights, twinkling in the dark. It makes adults feel like children again, even if it is only for a while.

But I wonder if the southern hemisphere felt the same way about Edward Johnson's invention, back in 1882. Here Christmas comes at the hottest time of the year when children are on the beach until late in the evening. No snow, no sleighs, no wintery wonderland.