One cold night in December of 1882 a reporter by the name of Croffet took an evening stroll through a posh district of New York City where homes had been wired for electric lights. If you’re going to take an evening stroll through the city, I’m thinking he probably made a good choice. As he looked at the grand houses, the visiting Detroit reporter was treated to an amazing sight.
He writes: “There, at the rear of the beautiful parlors, was a large Christmas tree, presenting a most picturesque and uncanny aspect. It was brilliantly lighted with many colored globes about as large as an English walnut and was turning some six times a minute on a little pine box.”
Croffet stood at the home of Edward H. Johnson, a long-time associate of Thomas Edison and vice-president of the Edison Electric Light Company. The tree Croffet later wrote about in the Detroit Post and Tribune was the first Christmas tree to ever be illuminated with electric lights. By displaying it in his home, Johnson secured his position in history as the “Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights” (talk about a resumé builder!)
Of course, next to this brilliant accomplishment, poor Edison’s own contribution to one of the tackiest of all
Christmas traditions, the displaying of outdoor Christmas lights (the top tacky spot is claimed by the musical tie that plays a tinny version of “Jingle Bells”), was sadly outshone (insert groan here). Two years before Johnson’s famous tree, Edison lined the outside of his Menlo Park laboratory with festive lights for the holidays. Alas, the only title Edison can claim on his resumé is: “Father of Electricity.”
So I confess that I have not always been a huge fan Christmas lights. When I was younger, I would admit that a few strands on the Christmas tree were quite nice and if one absolutely insisted, perhaps a thin spattering in a front yard tree was fine. Any more than that just always seemed to me a little ostentatious. But then I met and married my own version of Clark W. Griswold, who believes with his whole heart that “25,000 imported Italian twinkle lights” is a pretty good start.
Like all loving couples with healthy marriages, we had to find a way to work out a compromise. The first few years of our marriage we lived in a rented duplex and so we didn’t have a great deal of freedom to decorate. Light displays in those days were small. When we finally moved into a house of our own, we decided that we would hit the after Christmas sales every year (because we’re cheap) and buy one new lighted decoration to include the next year.
That worked great, because after a few years, lights would need to be replaced and so the display remained small enough to be a little above my comfort level and somewhere below his wildest imagination. Then a couple things happened. First, LED lights hit the market with a vengeance. Less expensive to operate and longer lasting, these lights have allowed us to hold onto decorations for a much longer period of time.
The second thing that happened is that somehow, little by little, my perception began to shift. I’m not sure why, but I began to look forward to planning and designing light displays. Sometimes I would even alter a driving route to include looking at the lights on other houses to get ideas for what we might do. But I knew I was in real trouble when a few years ago, I suggested, in early December, that we buy a pair of lighted geese for the front yard. With a victory smile on his face, my husband agreed and the geese went home with us that very day.
This year, however, we are preparing for a big move and our house is on the market. Because we suspect that not everyone appreciates lighted geese as much as we do, we have toned down our display to a more traditional level. The water fowl remain in the attic above the garage along with the dancing light lolly pops, the strings of blinking candy canes, and the twinkling Christmas trees that normally line the driveway. Christmas is just a little darker at the Angleton home this year.
But our tree still shines brightly in the window and even though it isn’t wired to revolve as Johnson’s was (he had hoped to be remembered as the “Father of Spinning Christmas Trees,” but it didn’t stick), I imagine an overly sentimental journalist like Croffet might say it twinkles “like the tree laden with lambent splendor that sparkles above the fountains in Aladdin’s palace.”
I wonder what he’d say about my lighted geese.