When it comes to Christmas light decorations, I’m your guy. I’ve liked putting them up since I was a kid decorating my parent’s home and driveway hedges. Back then, decorating your house for Christmas meant grabbing a ladder, a hammer, a few nails and strings of large outdoor incandescent lights.
For me the joy was in exactly positioning the lights so no two bulbs had the same color and pointed the same way. OK, I was a little obsessive then.
There’s nothing like decorating your own house and letting your creativity go wild. Christmas light decorating has been the USA’s most popular seasonal pastime since Edison first invented the incandescent light bulb in 1879. Three years later his associate created the first Christmas lights in his New York City home. He decorated a tree with 80 hand-wired red, white and blue globes which blinked and twinkled because the tree slowly revolved.
House decorating began with fiery traditions
Way back when there was no electric lighting or central heating, when the sun set night’s cold quickly began freezing all. And that’s where the traditional Yule Log came from.
December was the darkest month having the shortest days. A German “Yule” tradition was the name of winter Solstice festivals in some areas of northern Europe.
The Yule Log wasn’t just one log burned in the hearth to generate heat and light during the long, dark nights of December. It was originally an entire tree, carefully chosen and brought into the house with great ceremony. The bigger end of the log would be placed into hearth, but the rest of the tree stuck out into the room. The part in stuck the hearth was lit from the remains of the previous year’s log. It was slowly fed into the fire throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Come the candles
When Christmas trees made the scene, they were originally decorated with candles. One of the things that stuck me about Christmas tree candles tradition was how dangerous this could be when I wrote my review of Alistair Sim’s A Christmas Carol.
Candles could only be lit for a few minutes each night with alert family members intently watching as they sat around the tree with nearby buckets of sand and water ready to fight any fire that could and did erupt.
Obviously lighting a candle and securing it to a bare, dry branch of a Christmas tree was dangerous. So many fires, injuries and deaths occurred from this practice that by 1908, insurance companies refused to pay for damages caused by tree fires.
The first Christmas lights
Edward H Johnson’s tree
Christmas lights arrived for sale in 1890, and were expensive luxury items affordable only by the very well to do. Because these lights were expensive and novel, they naturally became a status symbol of sorts. But even the wealthy rented the things when they could instead of buying them That’s how expensive they were.
In 1903, a single set of 24 Christmas lights sold for $12.00, about $300 in today’s dollars. Blue collar worker’s wages averaged a little over $10 a week, with middle class professionals earning about $24 a week. Everybody thought the things were darned expensive.
Added to the cost of the lights purchase or rental, were required wireman’s services. Wiremen are electrical specialists who connect customers’ electrical systems to an outside power source. That power source was a generator to power the lights if the house wasn’t wired up for electrical power.
1930 marked a change
But by the 1930s the situation had changed. Many homes, stores, community Christmas trees, and government buildings were decorated with electric lights.
General Electric had been sponsoring community lighting competitions since the 1920s, but by the 1950s rows of neighborhood houses decorated with lights became the norm. You can probably blame GE for the rise of those over-the-top, Clark Griswold-like computer-controlled and excessive light displays set to music.
Today that particular “tradition” continues. I’ve asked myself one question when I watch a news video of a ornately decorated house with computer controlled lighting dancing to blaring recorded music: What about the neighbors?
Types of Christmas lights available
Today the variety of lights runs from traditional incandescent, cheaper-to-run LEDs to laser light projectors.
For me the fun I had as a kid and still do with the kid in me being a wee bit older and questionably mature, is that I still like the interplay of colors, light and how creative the decorations. Today we have a slew-full of lights and decorations to choose from and put up. Since I’m focused on outdoor decorations here, here’s a list.
About the same size as an average thumb, these lights operate the same way and are just as popular for outdoor displays as they were back in the 1950s when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
I remember them from the Christmas trees of my kidhood, and you younger folks may have parents who also remember.
C7 or C9 are technical designations that describe a bulb’s size. Marketers’ claims aside, they’re still available. In my humble opinion, I think that these lights make the best outdoor holiday decorations when used to wrap around trees, outline houses and roofs, windows, garages, gazebos and pathways without resorting to excessive Clark Griswold techniques.
When you combine the intrinsic beauty of the lights against a background of snow or during snow flurries, the magic really begins. Especially for those lights buried under snow-covered hedges, bushes or dusted evergreen. The somber glow in the snow is gorgeous to behold.
Nowadays it’s a lot easier to put them or set them up on a house or in a yard. There’s a whole bunch of stakes, clips and other accessories that makes it a lot easier to do.
These are the really small lights wired in series which helps keep alive the joyful memory of tracing down which bulb went bad so we can restore the string. You know, if one bulb goes out, the rest won’t light. But today this problem has been solved with parallel wired sets where if one bulb goes *poof* the others stay lit.
One thing I like about these lights is that they come with a red-tipped clear twinkle bulb with a switching filament, that as it heats up, opens the circuit and closes it when it cools, causing the string to blink or twinkle. Several of these strands wrapped around and through the branches of a snow-dusted Christmas Tree can really make a good light show, with various parts of the tree blinking on and off at different intervals, sometimes overlapping. Looks great when you turn off all the yard lights and enjoy.
One downsize to these lights is that they seem to thrive on binding up into hopeless snarls. And the bulbs are fragile little puppies so they do require some care.
The upside is that theses mini lights are great for outlining windows, walkways, pathways hedges or anything else you can think of. We still have tons of these that we’ve collected over the years. Have a little care though, cause the older the string the more likely the insulation on the wire has dried, become brittle enough to break. The same thing happens to those lights left up all year long. The sun’s UV rays will quickly degrade lights insulation. Procrastinators, take note.
LEDs are the energy-efficient alternative to the more expensive incandescent which have become politically correct to bash. LEDs come in a wide variety of sizes from LED C6, LED C7, LED C9, LED Wide Angle and LED icicle stringers. The latter are the ones you still see strung up in July on a lot of houses here in Southern California.
The popularity of LEDs continues to grow. I think that right now, their illumination doesn’t quite match that of incandescent bulbs, but that will change quickly as newer manufacturing methods emerge. They’re definitely cheaper to run and use less grid juice. I’m looking forward to their brightness explosions because I really like the little suckers and think that they may be the future of outdoor lighting applications.
LED lights use about 50% less energy than their incandescent buddies, and last up to 10 times longer. Here are a few types.
These LEDs are the tech version of incandescent mini-lights. These are small LED bulbs set in a plastic enclosures. Their illumination pales a bit in comparison to the traditional incandescent lights.
These LEDs are are globe shaped plastic enclosures.
Tree wraps are strings of lights with brown or dark green sockets designed to be wrapped around tree trunks, branches and structural columns. Strings are available in specific lengths to provide adequate coverage of trees varying widely in height and width. They’re also good to wrap deck railings.
These lights are available in LEDs or incandescent with varying lengths, bulb colors and number of bulbs per string. Usually the icicles are all white, which I consider to be a downside.
They’re also the lights that you see in July still hanging on the eves of houses. The owners must have either forgotten them or are early preparers for the next season. Lazy? Heavens, no!
I don’t think that the jury is in with a decision regarding the quality of light produced by solar lights. Like any other technical innovation, they have their upsides and downsides.
Easy Set Up
With solar lights you can forget about placement limitations tethered to power outlets and extension cords. This means you’ve got more reach in your yard to hit all those far-away corners.
Solar Christmas light batteries automatically recharge during the day, and the turn on and off at a time you can specify. Since they are wired in parallel you don’t have to be concerned about the lights going out if a bulb bites the dust, or if your neighborhood is hit by a power outage.
Solar Christmas lights eliminate the dangers of running extension cords all around your yard. Since they run cooler, there’s less overheating and fire risks.
The sun powers these babies. That means savings on your energy bill during the holiday season. Holiday house light displays can increase your electric bill by up to 20%. One string of LED holiday lights operated for 300 hours costs about $3, using an average energy cost of 12 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). Solar-powered Christmas lights operate for free. That means you’re saving that extra added 20% on your bill.
A miniature 100-light string solar-powered LED lights costs about $20 to $46, a little more than their plug-in cousins at $14 to $36 a string.
When you go solar you may score a tax rebate on your energy bill. Not all electrical utilities are equal. Check yours to see if your home qualifies for a rebate, or if your local Con Ed even offesr a program.
Solar Christmas lights last about ten times longer than incandescents and don’t have fragile filaments that can burn out or break. The bulbs are actually made of plastic instead of glass.
Solar lights don’t emit gas emissions such as carbon dioxide or Nitrous oxides. Because they last longer, fewer light strands are tossed out and don’t end up in landfills.
Before you run out to your local Big Box Home Center to stock up on solar, consider their downsides:
Higher Initial Costs:
In the long run, solar powered Christmas lights will save money on your energy bills, but your initial costs will be higher than using existing traditional incandescents. The average cost of a 40-foot string of solar LEDs runs about $35. If you want to make a complete and quick transition to solar, buying several light strands will be costly. You also have to figure that your ROI will run a span of years.
Sun and weather dependency:
Despite what many marketers claim, the sun don’t shine the same way over every area of the country.
Solar lights depend on the sun’s rays for energy and don’t do well under cloudy skies during inclement weather. Snow and rain solid cloud layers block the sun’s light and prevents batteries from fully charging. The result: dim and short lighting duration lasting only for only a couple hours. Placement must be made where the lights will receive adequate sunlight to fully charge their batteries. That placement can be a limiting factor when you design your outdoor display
Solar lights run cooler than their incandescent cousins, but are still susceptible to overheating. If they overheat, they won’t shine as bright and can stop working.
Less Bright Appearance:
Solar lights have different shapes and colors than incandescents, so your display may not be as bright or colorful as you hope it will be. Solar lights shine brighter, but have only one degree of brightness. So the design of the lights themselves have a lot to do with how well they will look on your house or in your yard.
Solar Christmas lighting durability remains largely unproven. How long they last will eventually be an answered question. For now, they’re too new on the market for statistical results.
Laser Light Projectors
These are technical innovations that have advantages all their own. What you get is not a string of hundreds of individual lights, but a laser projector with a refracted lens that splits laser beams into dots of light that can be projected onto a surface like the side of your house or the branches of a tree.
Laser light projectors offer an immediate obvious advantage over all the other lights systems available. They eliminate the use of ladders, tangled wires and high seasonal energy bills because they use about 5 watts of power.
Each projector can contain a 2 to 8-hour timer and remotes for turning the lights on from inside your home. There are multiple light effects with both static and flashing light options of red and green or combinations of the two.
Since each projector can light up 625 to 900 square feet of surface area, one or two projectors will be all you’ll need for the average house. You can easily light up the whole house, including the eaves without taking a step off the ground. Lighting tall trees you can’t each by ladders becomes an easy task.
Take a look at how it’s done.
I’ve gotta admit. I like the concept of Laser Christmas Lights. Laser light projectors install quickly and last longer than traditional Christmas lighting. But I still feel that LED or incandescent string lights on a house or yard are better. Lasers lack the impact and human touch of decorating with LEDs or incandescent strings. They just ain’t bright enough to suit me. Perhaps as the technology improves so will the power outputs of the systems.
But I can see their attraction. They go up really fast. So if you’re the type who feels the need for speed in decorating your house or business, the convenience they offer far outweighs any illumination downsides unless you’re a purist like me. I’m really looking forward to see how this technology will continue to improve.
Some house lighting displays have gone wayyyy over the top annoying shows that bother neighbors and the community at large. It’s not too difficult to find them. Their music is set to a driving rock music beat. Nor is it too difficult to find news clips of unhappy neighbors bitching about the light explosions, blaring sound and folks in slow-moving cars gawking at the insanity of it all.
But then their is the other side of the story. Like this one.
But despite this trend, thee are those who have tastefully done the job and produced amusing well done shows of short duration. Watch this one:
I do applaud the creativity that goes into the planning and production of these displays. I just hope that future productions remain within the bounds of good taste and volume.
A final Word
Christmas is for kid in every one of us. I think that decorating your house is a way of giving back to your neighborhood by demonstrating your creativity and restraint. I say “restraint” because it’s far too easy to head off for the deep end. Covering every spare inch of your house and yard may not be the answer. Creating a runway of blaring music set to dancing computer-controled lighted mayhem may not be either.
The answer is somewhere in between. No matter if you’re just starting out, or have been decorating for years, don’t look to the Joneses down the street who have created a landing spot for passing UFOs as your guide or competition.