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Why Do We Hang Lights on a Christmas Tree?


brightly lit Christmas tree

Placing lights on a tree is a tradition that dates to the very first Christmas tree. In the 1500s, religious reformer Martin Luther is said to have been inspired to place a pine tree in his home after walking through the woods on a starry night. He wired candles to the branches of his fir tree to recreate the beauty of the stars twinkling through the pine boughs. 

Candles adorned Christmas trees for the next few centuries, but they were dangerous decorations. People commonly placed a bucket of water or sand nearby in case the candles ignited the tree.

The age of electricity changed the way we decorated our Christmas trees.

Who Invented Electric Christmas Lights?

In 1882, Edward Hibbert Johnson, the vice president of the Edison Electric Company, lived in one of the first electrically-wired homes in New York City. An inventor, he replaced the candles on his tree with  electric light bulbs. He strung together 80 specially-made red, white and blue bulbs, attached them to a generator and set the brightly-lit tree in the parlor window of his E. 36th Street home. 

His colorful Christmas tree lights attracted national attention. However, because Americans generally mistrusted electricity and early Christmas lights were very expensive, not many people owned them. 


Presidential and Community Christmas Trees

President Grover Cleveland advanced the acceptance of Christmas lights in 1895 when he requested that an electrically-lighted Christmas tree be displayed in the White House, as a special treat for his young daughters.

The nation’s first community Christmas tree appeared in December 1912 in New York’s Madison Square. A crowd of 25,000 gathered to view the 70-foot tree, decorated with electric lights and topped with a lighted star.

In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge introduced the first National Christmas Tree. The 48-foot tree was strung with 2,500 electric bulbs. By comparison, the 2021 Rockefeller Center tree was 79 feet tall and contained more than 50,000 multi-colored lights!

Christmas Light Displays

As electric wires began stretching across America, manufacturers sought ways to promote their products. During the 1920s, electric companies sponsored contests encouraging people to festively deck their homes with Christmas lights. Within a generation, Americans had embraced the tradition of decorating trees and homes with brightly colored lights.

first White House Christmas tree


Over the past century, Christmas lights have become the most common Christmas decoration around the world. In fact, “an estimated 150 million light sets are sold in the United States each year - especially impressive, considering that most people actually reuse lighting sets from previous years.”

Today, we have numerous options for lighting our Christmas trees, homes and businesses, from energy-saving mini LED lights to vintage Christmas lights. Elaborate outdoor Christmas light displays have become a tradition – some are even set to music!

If you’re ready to bring more light to the Christmas season, take a closer look at our wide variety of indoor and outdoor Christmas lights.


Check out our Lighting Resources page for more information about types of lighting and bulbs.


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