We love our holiday lights for the way they brighten the dreary winter and cheer our spirits.
The tradition of making light to drive away the midwinter darkness is rooted deeply in the past. Pagans celebrated the winter solstice, also known as the Yule, in perhaps the oldest midwinter celebration in the world. Norse people of Scandinavia as far back as the Iron Age would burn a specially consecrated log, the Yule log decorated with holly, ivy and pine cones, to chase away the old year and usher in good fortune. The Romans marked the rebirth of the year with the Saturnalia, a festival dedicated to Saturn, god of agriculture. They exchanged gifts, including candles or cerei, to mark the return of light and decorated their homes with greenery. Singing, feasting and socializing started on December 17th and lasted seven days. Slaves joined the festivities, some masters even served their slaves and in another role reversal, men dressed as women.
Much later, in the 17th century, the lighted Christmas tree was supposedly dreamed up in Germany by religious reformer Martin Luther, who was inspired by stars twinkling through evergreen branches. Queen Victoria’s German husband Albert introduced the Christmas tree to England in 1841. The idea then spread to the US.
At that time the candles were attached to the tree with wax or pins and posed a fire hazard. Often families would have a bucket of water nearby and kept candles alight for only an hour at a time. Even so, numerous fires happened and insurance companies decided to stop paying for fires caused by Christmas trees.
In 1880 Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb. One of his associates, Edward Johnson, had the idea of advertising this invention by stringing eighty, custom-made bulbs colored red, blue or white, on a rotating Christmas tree at his home on Fifth Avenue in New York. That was in 1882. President Grover Cleveland soon followed by electrically lighting a Christmas tree at the White House in 1885. However festive lights did not catch on with the general public till the 1920s when they became less expensive. Initially they cost the equivalent of $80, about a week’s wages.
Here in rural Thetford, festive lights really stand out. There are few, if any, competing street lights. Here’s a drive-by sampling of some of the displays.
Thank you to all who brighten the midwinter darkness and delight the rest of us!
Happy New Year
Photo credit: Li Shen