With the holiday season here, it's time to gather 'round our Christmas light displays, decorated trees, and perfectly-packaged gifts. And while we often think of these as holiday staples, there was a time when they actually weren't as wide-spread. We caught up with Jim Johnson, curator of historic structures and landscapes at The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan, who shared with us a few lesser-known facts about Christmas.
1. German enclaves in Pennsylvania were the first to include a tree in their Christmas celebration
The first Christmas trees sprouted in Germany in the early 1500s. By the 1800s, they were a national tradition. Their popularity spread among other European nations, especially Britain, it was only a matter of time for this custom to make its way to the United States. The average American really did not get exposed to the custom of the Christmas tree until the middle of the 19th century.
But there's another story, too.
"The over-simplified version attributes the creation of the Christmas tree to Martin Luther (the 16th-century Protestant reformer)," Johnson explains. "He was so inspired by the beauty of the fir trees, back lit by the stars on a clear December night, he cut a small tree, brought it home and affixed candles to the branches to replicate what he had seen in the woods."
2. The first trees were actually pretty small and set on a table
Trees were generally harvested from the forests with people often cutting smaller understory trees like the balsam fir. They were three to five feet tall, set on a table, and decorated with both decorative and edible ornaments. They were usually lit with small candles affixed to the branches and (unlike today) trees were typically brought into the house for Christmas Eve and Day, then returned outside.
3. Toys, mittens and flags made up some of the first tree decorations
"Both American and other ethnic flags often made appearances of the tree, along with hand-made paper ornaments featuring lithograph printed scrap art that featured angels, animals, birds, and symbols of all sorts," explains Johnson. "Small pink bags of netting were tied up with hard candies and nuts, and paper cones and decorative boxes were also hung full of candy."
4. Thomas Edison invented electric Christmas lights
Without intention, Thomas Edison created the first Christmas lights in Menlo Park, New York, in the in the early 1880s. He was testing the first lighting grid around the holiday season and word spread, attracting crowds to view the lights from throughout the area. Edison patented his electrical lighting system in 1880, and by December of 1882, there were already experimental electric Christmas lights, which became commercially available by 1890.
5. The first electric Christmas lights were colorful miniature-sized light bulbs
"The first generation of these lights could be purchased as your local Edison Illuminating Company offices, and touted 'no special wiring required,'" Johnson elaborates. Because standard electrical outlets as we know in our homes today did not exist until the 1920s, current was available through the sockets in which the light bulbs were screwed. "By the 1930s, though still using cloth covered wires, the sets began to look much like they do today with plugs on each end."
Feeling inspired? Watch how to decorate a Christmas tree with a candy-colored Land of Sweets theme: