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NEWS & EVENTS

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December 19, 2019

News & Events 2

The winter holidays are here and it’s time for one of our most cherished American traditions – waiting in rapt anticipation for the moment when something ordinary is suddenly transformed and bathing us in the warmth of thousands of tiny lights. Holiday lights, the simplest of holiday décor, are always greeted with wide eyes, big smiles and a chorus of oohs and ahhs. The twinkling of glass bulbs tells us the season of Washington D.C. holiday events has officially begun.So, if you’re looking to add sparkle to your holidays, from festive and heartwarming to over-the-top, DC has the most spectacular holiday light displays anywhere (and most are free). Its tree lightings, light festivals, and parades, on land and water, are sure to make your holidays bright.SHEDDING LIGHT ON THE HISTORY OF HOLIDAY LIGHTSOur obsession with the bright and shiny has been part of holiday celebrations for nearly a millennium. Way, way back in 12th-century Germany, as the winter months set in and days, become shorter, families lit Yule logs. It was their way of making long winter nights a little shorter. The blazing log represented the return of the sun after the winter solstice. The Yule log then evolved into lighting small candles on Christmas trees. Lovely to look at, but with evergreen trees notorious for bursting into flames, nervous merrymakers had to be at the ready with buckets of water or sand. So, don’t try this at home. The big change came in 1882, when Edward H. Johnson, an associate of Thomas Edison, literally had a bright idea. He strung 80 red, white and blue bulbs around a small tree. To add to the spectacle, he placed the tree on a contraption that rotated on an electric crank. This was a big deal at the time. So big that in 1895 the White House, under Grover Cleveland, got in on the excitement and had its first electric lit Christmas tree.The holiday lights craze had begun. By the turn of the 20th century, magazines ran ads for the rental of strung Christmas lights. Yes, rental. They rented them because General Electric’s very first 24-bulb light set in 1903 ran a whopping $12. That’s about $340 today. Even though they were priced where only the rich could afford them, the contagious appeal of lights spread like, well, fire on an evergreen tree full of candles.On a brisk DC winter evening in 1923, President Calvin Coolidge flicked the switch that lit up the very first National Christmas Tree to grace the White House grounds. The 48-foot-tall balsam fir, from Coolidge’s own home state of Vermont, was adorned with a strand of 2,500 red, white and green bulbs. Today, we can easily beat that number on the tree in our own living room. But at the time, it was nothing short of miraculous. This was the beginning of a beloved White House tradition that stands today.In 1925, big changes came. Fifteen or so Christmas light companies came together to form a consortium. This allowed them to produce the lights at a lower cost, spreading holiday cheer to the multitudes. More than a century later, those 80 bulbs bourgeoned into hundreds of millions of tiny electric lights that decorate American homes and around 40 million trees each year. From those first simple strings of bulbs to computer-controlled LED light displays synced to music, the holiday light bulb has come a long way.