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Christmas lights

Christmas

Christmas lights

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Section of a string of Christmas lights
Section of a string of Christmas lights

Christmas lights (also sometimes called fairy lights, twinkle lights or holiday lights in the United States) are strands of electric lights used to decorate homes, public/commercial buildings and Christmas trees during the Christmas season, mostly in the West. Christmas lights come in a dazzling array of configurations and colors.

Contents

History

First Christmas tree with electric lights, in the home of Edward H. Johnson in New York City, December 22, 1882.
First Christmas tree with electric lights, in the home of Edward H. Johnson in New York City, December 22, 1882.

The first known electrically-illuminated Christmas tree was the creation of Edward H. Johnson, an associate of inventor Thomas Edison. While he was vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company, a predecessor of today's Con Edison electric utility, he had Christmas tree light bulbs especially made for him. He proudly displayed his Christmas tree, which was hand-wired with 80 red, white and blue electric incandescent light bulbs the size of walnuts, on December 22, 1882 at his home on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Local newspapers ignored the story, seeing it as a publicity stunt. However, it was published by a Detroit newspaper reporter, and Johnson became the Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights. By 1900, businesses started stringing up Christmas lights behind their windows.[1] Christmas lights were too expensive for the average person. Electric Christmas lights did not become the majority replacing candles until 1930.[2]

In 1895, U.S. President Grover Cleveland proudly sponsored the first electrically lit Christmas tree in the White House. It was a huge specimen, featuring more than a hundred multicolored lights. The first commercially produced Christmas tree lamps were manufactured in strings of multiples of eight sockets by the General Electric Co. of Harrison, New Jersey. Each socket took a miniature two-candela carbon-filament lamp.

From that point on, electrically illuminated Christmas trees, but only in doors, grew with mounting enthusiasm in the United States and elsewhere. San Diego in 1904 and New York City in 1912 were the first recorded instances of the use of Christmas lights outside.[3] McAdenville North Carolina claims to have been the first in 1956.[4] The library of congress credits the town for inventing "the tradition of decorating evergreen trees with Christmas lights dates back to 1956 when the McAdenville Men's Club conceived of the idea of decorating a few trees around the McAdenville Community Center."[5] However, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree has had "lights" since 1931, but did not have real electric lights until 1956.[6] Furthermore, Phildelphia's Christmas Light Show and Disney's Christmas Tree also began in 1956.[7][8] Though General Electric sponsored community lighting competitions during the 1920s, it would take until the mid 1950s for the use of such lights to be adopted by average households.

Over a period of time, strings of Christmas lights found their way into use in places other than just Christmas trees. Soon, strings of lights adorned mantles and doorways inside homes, and ran along the rafters, roof lines, and porch railings of homes and businesses. In recent times, many city skyscrapers are decorated with long mostly-vertical strings of a common theme, and are activated simultaneously in Grand Illumination ceremonies.

Types

In modern times, Christmas lighting devices can be based on different technologies. Common technologies are incandescent light bulbs and now LEDs. Light bulbs or LEDs are usually connected in series to be powered from mains without a transformer (LED-based strings, of course, have a current-limiting resistor). Neon lamp based strings have lamps connected in parallel, each with its own current-limiting resistor. All battery-powered lights are wired in parallel.

Other set-ups include light bulb or LED-based strings with a line isolation step down transformer with bulbs or LEDs connected in parallel (LEDs have current limiting resistors). These sets are much safer, but there is a voltage drop at the end of the string (less noticeable with LED than incandescent). There is also the "wall wart" transformer which may be difficult to plug in certain places.

There are even Christmas light sets that use fiber optic technology. They are usually incorporated into an artificial Christmas tree. They have light bulbs or LEDs in the tree base and many fiber optic wires going to the leaves of the tree. These devices always have line isolation step-down transformer, because they have only one or two bulbs or LEDs.

Christmas lights can be animated. This is done by using special flasher or "interrupter bulbs" or electronically. An electronic Christmas light controller usually has a diode bridge followed by a resistor-based voltage divider, a filter capacitor and a fixed-program microcontroller. The animation modes are changed by pressing a button. The microcontroller has three or four outputs which are connected to transistors or thyristors. They control interleaved strings: commonly red, green, blue and yellow, or other combinations such as red, green and white.

Fiber-optic Christmas trees can also be animated electronically, but more often this is done by means of a rotating color filter disc when an incandescent light is used. Since 2005, electronic animation is used with LED-base fiber optics.

LED lights have the advantages of using 80-90% less electricity than incandescent bulbs, longer lifespan (some manufacturers claim 10 or 20 years), and color retention.

The light emitted by incandescent bulbs is all the same color at the early stage of production. Then, the bulb cover (envelope) is painted or dyed to achieve the colors we all enjoy.

LEDs on the other hand (except for the white hues, which use phosphors) emit a specific color, even if there is no envelope in place. Interestingly, it is also impossible to determine with the naked eye the color output of a non-energized LED.

Colored LED light strings use colored envelopes so that the consumer can identify which colors are on any given set of lights. Realistically, a multi-colored LED set could have all clear, colorless envelopes yet emit a full rainbow of colors once plugged in. Obviously, it would be hard to sell a set of colored bulbs to customers if the bulbs were colorless in the package, so manufacturers color the envelopes.

Even if a set of colored LED lights was exposed to the sun for years, and the colors of the envelopes were noticably faded, the LEDs would maintain their original like-new colors. This would eliminate the current problem of having to replace light strings often after using them for only one Christmas season due to the faded envelopes (this is a particular problem with red lights, the envelopes of which will often fade to pink quite quickly).

Sizes

Note that the following may be particular to North America, and may vary in countries with mains other than 120 volts.

Christmas lighting began with small C6 bulbs -- C meaning "candle" for the flame shape, and 6 meaning 6⁄8ths of an inch (3⁄4 inch, or 19mm) in diameter. These were on a candelabra screw-base, now designated E11 (Edison screw, 11mm). These bulbs are now produced as miniature strings, usually with the entire bulb replaced, but sometimes as a decorative cover with regular bulbs inside. These bulbs tend to be transparent white or colors, and are often ornately designed with crystal-like patterns.

Later bulbs were called C7, being 7/8ths inch (1516ths, or 24mm) in diameter, however these have a blunt shape (and should therefore be called B7, or B24). Mixing metric and English units, there are also now G30 globes which are 30mm (1+3⁄16 inch, or G9) in diameter that uses these sockets. These are still used for the classic or even retro look, and use about five watts each. Early bulbs, as well as some new antique reproductions, are made in various shapes and then painted like Christmas ornaments. Bubble lights and twinkle bulbs also come in this size.

Outdoor-only bulbs are designated C9 (1+532 inch or 29mm), and have a similar blunt shape as the C7, but an E17 "intermediate" base. These are about seven watts each, and also now come in a globe shape, designated G40 (40mm or 1+916). Some of the blunt-shape bulbs now come painted with designs, or swirled in more than one color. It is now very difficult to find twinkle bulbs in this size.

Standard mini bulbs are T1, indicating that they are a tube shape 732 inch or 5.5mm in diameter. Larger mini bulbs, which began appearing around 2004, are about twice this size, but are still very uncommon. Both types, along with most of the candle-shaped ones, are pinched-off at the tip rather than the base during manufacturing.

Other miniature types include globe-shaped "pearl" and smaller "button" lights, which are often painted in translucent or pearlescent colors. "Rice" lights are tiny, like a grain of rice, and can even have a subminiature base, if they are not already fixed permanently to the wires (on low-voltage sets). These are typically transparent, intended to create tiny points of lights.

LED lights, which are encased in solid plastic rather than a hollow glass bulb, may be molded into any shape. Because of the way the LED casts light in only one direction, this is the most common way to design LED lighting, with even "plain" sets having some sort of crystal pattern to create refraction.

Many bargain brands have dome-shaped LEDs which focuses the light to where it's sharply visible when viewed head-on, but almost invisible from a perpendicular viewpoint. This has both advantages and disadvantages according to your decorating needs.

If a small LED bulb size but wider viewing perspective is desired, there are wide-angle LEDs available. Rather than being dome-shaped (convex), the envelope is concave (sunken in) to cause wider distribution of light.

All mini bulbs (including LED) have a wedge base, though the exact design of each is inconsistent, making it difficult to change bulbs. To replace a bulb, the plastic base of the bulb must usually be changed by straightening the two wires and pulling the glass part out. Most replacement bulbs do not even include the bases anymore, despite getting only ten in a package and being charged nearly half what an entirely new string of 100 costs. For this reason, many Americans treat mini Christmas lights as being disposable, in addition to colored lights tending to fade even with only brief exposure to weathering.

Sets

Large bulbs typically come in sets of 25, though bubble lights strangely come in sets of seven, and some non-holiday sets come in ten or twelve. Sockets are usually spaced about one foot or 30cm apart, and are clamped to the wire with an integrated insulation-piercing connector.

Miniatures typically first came in sets of 35 (3.5 volts per bulb), and sometimes smaller sets of 20 (6 volts per bulb). Sets of ten (12 volts per bulbs) were made for very small trees, but are quite hot, and are now usually used for tree toppers only. This number is convenient for stars, which have a total of ten points (five outward and five inward), and often have another light in the middle, occasionally on both sides.

Incandescent minis now usually come in sets of 50 or 100 (which contains two circuits of 50), though decorative sets with larger bulbs (C6 or pearl) typically come in 35 or 70. Several "extra-bright" sets also use 70 or 105, keeping the per-bulb voltage at 3.5 instead of 2.5. Computerized sets usually come in 140 (354), or occasionally 150 (503) or 200 (504), rarely in 105 (353).

LED sets can vary greatly. Common is a set of 60 (2 volts per bulb), but white LED sets use two circuits of 30 (4 volts per bulb). Multicolor sets may have special wiring, because red and yellow require less voltage than the newer blue-based ones (which also includes both emerald green and fluorescent white).

Battery-powered sets typically come in 10 or 12, and can use standard 2.5 to 3.5-volt bulbs because they run two batteries, totaling three volts or less. LEDs are becoming increasingly common as they greatly prolong battery life, but because they also last longer they are often soldered right to the wires, making up for some of the increased cost of the newer LEDs. 'Rice lights" are often made this way as well, and likewise may also have more bulbs per set as they draw somewhat less power per bulb than other incandescents.

Ornamentation

Early bulbs were sometimes made in shapes and painted, the same way that glass ornaments are. These are typically pressed glass, much as common dishware was at the time. These are reproduced in very limited quantity nowadays, typically found only at specialty retailers and online. Metal reflectors were also used until the 1970s, having a center hub of cardboard, which then had tabs that pressed between the bulb and the socket.

Miniature lights sets can come with attached ornaments, typically plastic but somestimes glass. These began mid-century with petal "reflectors" which actually refracted the light and focused it in beams, and perhaps even earlier with crystal-like ones. On both types, the bulb stuck out of the center, and the "reflector" could be removed from the socket. Later designs, though much less popular, included stars. LED lights now come molded into shapes, though the light comes from the top instead of the center.

Mini lights can also have full-size ornaments normally sold on sets of ten. Certain sets have more than one bulb per ornament, such as for snowmen and candy canes which are long. There is an enormous array of other designs, ranging from holly berries and poinsettias to star-shaped santas and wire mesh snowflakes. There are also ones for other holidays.

Safety

In the past, Christmas light sets used line-voltage (120 or 240 volts depending on what country) light bulbs, similar to those used in refrigerators, connected in parallel. These sets were very power hungry and are used less widely nowadays. Even before that, Christmas trees were illuminated by candles.

The Marshall, Texas courthouse outlined in Christmas lights
The Marshall, Texas courthouse outlined in Christmas lights

The number of strands of continuous light sets that may be safely conjoined varies based on whether the lights are LEDs, ordinary miniature light bulbs, or the larger C7/C9 type light bulbs. Other factors include the voltage of the set and the size of the wiring in the set. If you have questions, consult the manufacturer's instructions or an electrician.

Most light sets come with built in fuses to help protect against overheating and to prevent your house's fuses or circuit breakers from being tripped. If you blow a fuse, unplug the strand from the power source and reduce the number of lights immediately. If the strand has nothing attached, or has blown repeatedly, the strand may contain a short and should be discarded.

It should also be noted that many light sets may contain traces of lead, and consumers should wash hands thoroughly after handling these products, especially before eating. Proposition 65 of California requires that if products contain lead or traces of lead then a warning must be printed on packing of products. Be sure to check the label for this and any additional warnings.

Outdoor displays

In the U.S. from the 1960s, beginning in tract housing, it became increasingly the custom to completely outline the house (but particularly the eaves) with weatherproof Christmas lights. The Holiday Trail of Lights is a joint effort by cities in east Texas and northwest Louisiana that had its origins in the Festival of Lights and Christmas Festival in Natchitoches, started in 1927, making it one of the oldest light festivals in the United States.

It is often a pastime to drive around neighborhoods in the evening to see the lights displayed on and around other homes. While some homes have no lights, others may have incredibly ornate displays which require weeks to construct. A rare few have even made it to the Extreme Christmas TV specials shown on HGTV, at least one requiring a generator and another requiring separate electrical service to supply the amount of electrical power required.

A holiday tradition that started in Richmond, Virginia is a "Tacky Light Tour," begun in 1986 by Barry "Mad Dog" Gottlieb as the "Tacky Xmas Decoration Contest and Grand Highly Illuminated House Tour". People either sign up for a tour, or drive themself around to find houses that are the tackiest. Most of the houses on this tour are completley covered in Christmas lights, similar to the way Clark Griswold decorated his house in the movie Christmas Vacation. Many people in Richmond, and other cities as well, strive to have the tackiest house in the city.

Light sculptures

Lights are sometimes mounted on frames -- typically metal for large lights and plastic for miniature ones. These started on lampposts, street lights, and telephone poles in cities and towns with large C7 bulbs, but by the 1990s were being made in smaller form with miniature lights for home use. Public displays often have outdoor-rated garland on the frame as well, making them very decorative even in the daytime. Annual displays in Oxford Street, London, England are adored by the public and local businesses alike, have been erected for decades and will continue to do so with the help of companies like Piggotts [1]. Consumer types now tend to come with a plastic sheet backing printed in the proper design, and in the 2000s now with nearly photographic quality graphics and usually on a holographic "laser" backing.

Light sculptures are still the main form of public displays such as in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in Tennessee.

Other holidays

In the United States, "Christmas" lights have been produced for many other holidays. These may be simple sets in typical holiday colors, or the type with plastic ornaments which the light socket fits into. Light scultures are also produced in typical holiday icons.

Halloween is the most popular, with miniature light strings having black-insulated wires and semi-opaque orange bulbs. Later sets had some transparent purple bulbs (a representation of black, similar to blacklight), a few even have transparent green, or a translucent or semi-opaque lime green (possibly representing slime as in Ghostbusters, or creatures like goblins or space aliens).

Easter lights are often produced in pastels. These typically have white wire and connectors.

Red, white, and blue lights are produced for Independence Day, as well as U.S. flag and other patriotic-themed ornaments. Net lights have been produced with the lights in a U.S. flag pattern. In 2006 some stores carried stakes with LEDs that light fiber-optics, looking similar to fireworks.

Various types of patio lighting with no holiday theme are also made for summertime. These are often clear white lights, but most are ornament sets, such as lanterns made of metal or bamboo, or plastic ornaments in the shape of barbecue condiments, flamingos and palm trees, or even various beers. Some are made of decorative wire or mesh, in abstract shapes such as dragonflies, often with glass "gems" or marbles. Light sculptures are also made in everything from wire-mesh frogs to artificial palm trees outlined in rope lights.

Trivia

  • Christmas light strings wired in series were often of a type where if one bulb burned out or was loose, an entire string would not illuminate. Development of wiring in parallel and shunts (antifuses) in individual bulb bases allowed bulbs to burn out without affecting the others.
  • In the 1989 film National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, the character played by Chevy Chase attempts to follow American family Christmas traditions with elaborate Christmas lights and decorations on the exterior of the family home. He then attempts a "Grand Illumination" outside the house.
  • In the 2006 film Deck the Halls, the characted played by Danny DeVito tries to cover his house with enough Christmas lights for it to be visible from space.
  • The Oklahoma alternative rock band Flaming Lips became known in their early days for covering their instruments in Christmas lights.

External links


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Christmas Guide, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.