If you're like me, your house is probably decked out with coloured lights right now. For that matter, your Christmas tree probably is as well. I am not sure how the tradition of decorating one's house with lights for the Yuletide got started, but it seems to have been firmly rooted well before I was born.
Many of the traditions connected with modern day Christmas in those countries which speak Germanic languages (England, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and so on) grew out of the pagan celebration called Geol (modern English Yule) in Old English, Jol in Old Norse, et. al. Decorating with holly and mistletoe, mummer's plays, and even eating ham for Christmas may well stem from Germanic paganism. But I am not so sure that Christmas lights are one of those traditions. Granted descriptions of ancient Yule are pretty sparse and we really don't have much to rely on, but it seems to me that lights may not have played a role in the holiday. About the only thing remotely related I can recall off the top of my head is the Yule log.
For the origin of holiday lights, then, it might be better to look to Christianity, where the season of Advent (the four weeks prior to Christmas) is celebrated with candles. Each Sunday a candle is lit, each symbolising a different thing. It seems possible to me that the association of candles with the holiday season could then have made its way from the church into the home, or more precisely, to the tree.
Christmas trees are first attested in Germany in the 16th century. By the 18th century there are references to wax candles being used on tannenbaums in the Rhineland. By the time the Christmas tree was introduced to the United Kingdom in the 18th century (by King George III's consort, Queen Charlotte), it apparently came complete with candles. As a child, Queen Victoria described in her journal their Christmas tree "...hung with lights and sugar ornaments..."
Of course, placing candles on Christmas trees obviously had its dangers, so it was perhaps natural that they would eventually be replaced by electric lights. The first tannenbaum illuminated by electric lights was done so by Edward H. Johnson, then vice president of Edison Electric Light Company. In 1882 he decorated his tree with electric lights. By the early 1900s, businesses were not only decorating their trees with electric lights, but their window displays as well. It would not be long before people would decorate the outside of their houses with lights. The first time that Christmas lights were used outside appear to have been in San Diego in 1904 and New York City in 1912. These lights were well beyond the budget of most families at the time--in 1903 electric Christmas tree lights would cost the equivalent of $2000 by today's standards. It is perhaps for this reason that average American families did not start decorating the exteriors of their homes with lights until the Fifties.
At any rate, holiday lights are among my fondest memories of the Yuletide as a child. I remember as a child my father would always decorate our porch in early December. The lights then were fairly large by today's standards, about the size of a small walnut. And while today you see houses decorated in lights of one colour (yellow, red, even blue), ours were always multi-coloured. To this day I prefer multi-coloured lights on both my house and my tree.
In those days the cities would go all out with lights for the Yuletide. I remember both Huntsville and Moberly would string lights along the electric wires of their downtowns. As a child it always looked impressive to me. Sadly, the custom ended with the energy crisis of the Seventies. I also remember as a child that there was a place around New Franklin that had an enormous Christmas light display. Every year would we make the drive to see it. It was incredible, with light displays in the shape of Santa in his sleigh and so on. Sadly, the energy crisis brought an end to it, too. Fortunately, though they did not start until recently, Moberly started decorating Rothwell Park (the 885 acre park here in Randolph County) with Christmas light displays. The past several I have enjoyed driving through the park this time of year for that reason. My favourite display is set on Rothwell Lake, a fisherman with his line animated by lights.
When compared to much older Yuletide traditions, decorating Christmas trees with lights is a relatively recent tradition. Decorating houses with lights is even more so. Regardless, I suspect most people today immediately think of them when they think of the holidays. I know I do. I don't think the holiday season would be the same without them.