Who Invented Electric Christmas Tree Lights?

Who came up with the idea for electric lights on our Christmas trees, and how did the idea catch on?

According to Popular Mechanics:

“Shortly after the Illustrated London News ran a picture of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert gathered around a lit Christmas tree with their children, British society embraced the tradition. Strangely, in 1850 an altered depiction of the Royal Christmas ran in the influential Godey’s Lady’s Book—removing such details as the Queen’s tiara and Prince Albert’s mustache—where it gained popularity in the States as the first ‘influential American Christmas tree.'”


The Library of Congress, our national source of all kinds of knowledge for American history, tells the story of how the lights caught on in the United States:

“Thomas Edison, the inventor of the first successful practical light bulb, created the very first strand of electric lights. During the Christmas season of 1880, these strands were strung around the outside of his Menlo Park Laboratory. Railroad passengers traveling by the laboratory got their first look at an electrical light display. But it would take almost forty years for electric Christmas lights to become the tradition that we all know and love.

Before electric Christmas lights, families would use candles to light up their Christmas trees. This practice was often dangerous and led to many home fires. Edward H. Johnson put the very first string of electric Christmas tree lights together in 1882. Johnson, Edison’s friend and partner in the Edison’s Illumination Company, hand-wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs and wound them around his Christmas tree. Not only was the tree illuminated with electricity, it also revolved.

Edward Johnson's tree

Edward Johnson’s tree

However, the world was not quite ready for electrical illumination. There was a great mistrust of electricity and it would take many more years for society to decorate its Christmas trees and homes with electric lights.


Some credit President Grover Cleveland with spurring the acceptance of indoor electric Christmas lights. In 1895, President Cleveland requested that the White House family Christmas tree be illuminated by hundreds of multi-colored electric light bulbs.

On Christmas Eve 1923, President Calvin Coolidge began the country’s celebration of Christmas by lighting the National Christmas Tree with 3,000 electric lights on the Ellipse located south of the While House.”

President Coolidge illuminating the Christmas tree on the White House lawn (Library of Congress pic)

Apparently, a Department of Commerce official, Frederick M. Feiker, came up with the idea hoping it would boost the growing electricity industry. Years later he recalled:

“The Society for Electrical Development was interested to have as many people use electric lights at Christmas time as possible, so I thought of this idea of having the National Christmas Tree at Washington, which would stimulate other people to have outdoor Christmas trees. In order to get this started, we had to get the President of the United States to light the tree. If you get the President of the United States two years in succession to do a thing, he will always do it.”

The plan was successful, and also started a custom for American presidents that has been observed every year except during World War II, and in 1979, when only the topper was illuminated in honor of American hostages in Iran.

U.S. National Christmas Tree in 1979

The Library of Congress also explains:

“Until 1903, when General Electric began to offer pre-assembled kits of Christmas lights, stringed lights were reserved for the wealthy and electrically savvy. The wiring of electric lights was very expensive and required the hiring of the services of a wireman, our modern-day electrician. According to some, to light an average Christmas tree with electric lights before 1903 would have cost $2000.00 in today’s dollars.”

Energy Efficient LED Christmas Lights

Energy Efficient LED Christmas Lights

Mental Floss explains how Christmas tree lights made it to the living rooms of average Americans:

“Festoons (the afore-mentioned pre-assembled kits of Christmas lights from GE) were still pretty expensive at $12 per string (slightly less than an average week’s wages for many people), but that problem would be solved when GE attempted to patent their Christmas lighting festoon. The patent application was refused, because the product was based on knowledge that an ordinary wireman possessed. With the market wide open, other companies and inventors began to produce their own tree light sets and the American Christmas light industry was born.”

Popular Mechanics adds that the first outdoor light show was organized by Frederick Nash in Altadena, California, which “turned Santa Rosa Avenue into Christmas Tree Lane.” “Christmas Tree Lanes” are now common throughout the country.


And in areas where there aren’t traditional fir trees, celebrants make do with what is available.

Christmas Arizona-style

Christmas Arizona-style


About rhapsodyinbooks

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2 Responses to Who Invented Electric Christmas Tree Lights?

  1. Kilovars says:

    I’m so glad they did that! What would our Christmas be without beautiful lights? Thanks so much for a great article.

  2. Seek Lamp says:

    I’m so glad they did that! What would our Life be without beautiful lights? Thanks so much for a great article.

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