‘Oh Christmas Tree’: History of Christmas Trees, Lights & Décor

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches through old newspapers to see how Christmas tree lights and decorations have changed over the years.

As genealogists and family historians, I do not need to tell you that the Christmas season is one filled with traditions, family, and memories. One of the first Christmas memories I have is of our Christmas tree. In our home when I was growing up, Santa brought the tree on Christmas Eve—which made Christmas morning all the more magnificent and magical to a child!

I recall inspecting the Christmas tree, every light and every ornament. On our Christmas tree were a few very special, antique ornaments. These were Christmas ornaments which had a small candleholder on their tops and wax drippings on them. As I eyed these I would always make my parents and grandparents recount how Christmas trees of their youth were decorated with real candles rather than electric lights, and every year I begged for us to please do candles like in the old days.

A Little Family Christmas Secret

Every Christmas Eve, when my family would go to my Nana and Gramps Phillips’ house to celebrate Christmas with them, I always got a very special Christmas treat! When everyone was in other rooms, Gramps would secretly take me with him to their tree, pull a small wax candle out of his pocket, put it on one of the old ornaments, and light it for me. To this day I don’t know whose smile was bigger, his or mine. But I do know this: that memory is just one of the many reasons that I loved my Gramps so very dearly!

Lights, Christmas, Action!

Recently as I was researching an ancestor in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, I decided to look for more information on the venerable Christmas tree and its decorations, especially how we have lighted trees over the generations for our viewing pleasure.

photo of author Scott Phillips and his Christmas tree

Photo: Scott Phillips and his family’s Christmas tree. Credit: from the author’s collection.

Christmas Traditions with Pagan Origins?

I must admit I was surprised when one of my initial discoveries was an article from a 1920 newspaper about how pagan some Christmas traditions are. This article actually made me laugh since it seems it could have been in one of today’s newspapers. But I moved on in my Christmas tree history investigation!

Much Paganism in Observance of Christmas, Charlotte Observer newspaper article 24 December 1920

Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina), 24 December 1920, page 1

Then I came across a 1908 article in my old hometown newspaper, the Plain Dealer. This old news article interviewed several ministers who were all in favor of trying to discourage the common practice of decorating Christmas trees with lit candles.

Christmas Tree Candles Hard Hit, Plain Dealer newspaper article 29 July 1908

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 29 July 1908, page 12

Real Candles on Christmas Trees

However, (and I SO wish that I had known about this next article when, as a child, I would make my annual plea for candles on our tree), I found a wonderful, full-page story from a 1908 newspaper titled “Watching for an Expected Guest.” This historical newspaper article included dozens of stories about Christmas traditions around the world, such as “Worship at Cross of Ice” and “In the Realm of the Czar.” But it was an item at the bottom of the page titled “The Christmas Tree” that caught my eye:

“Wax candles are the only real thing for a Christmas tree, candles of wax that mingle their perfume with that of the burning fir, not the by-product of some coal-oil or other abomination. What if the boughs do catch fire? They can be watched, and too many candles are tawdry, anyhow.”

Oh, how I would have used this as “ammunition” in my fight for candles on our tree!

Watching for an Expected Guest [Santa Claus], Repository newspaper article 13 December 1908

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 13 December 1908, page 43

An Old Christmas Quiz

Then I made a really fun newspaper discovery! It was an article from a 1983 newspaper titled “A Christmas Quiz.” If you love Christmas like I do, then you have to look this one up and take this awesome 25-question Christmas quiz!

While I didn’t score well on the Christmas quiz, I did learn a lot and one of the questions I did get correct was #11; “Which American President was the first to decorate the White House tree with electric lights?” Do you know who it was? It was Grover Cleveland and at that time (1895) he made a big push for families to switch to electric lights on all Christmas trees. By the way, since GenealogyBank.com has complete editions of its historical newspapers, you can jump to the next page of the Oregonian and check your answers—but no cheating! Remember Santa knows who is “naughty” and who is “nice”!

A Christmas Quiz, Oregonian newspaper article 25 December 1983

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 25 December 1983, page 98

Electrocution by Electric Christmas Lights

Next up I found another article that I could have used in my childhood campaign against electric lights on our Christmas tree—and this was a safety issue I remember. This 1959 newspaper article reported a warning about the new all-aluminum Christmas trees that had just been introduced. It turns out they posed a potential risk of electrocution if electric lights were used on them.

union-newspaper-1202-1959-aluminum-christmas-trees-warning" src="http://blog.genealogybank.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/springfield-union-newspaper-1202-1959-aluminum-christmas-trees-warning.png" alt="Warning Is Given: New [Aluminum] Christmas Tree Is Electrical Hazard, Springfield Union newspaper article 2 December 1959" width="304" height="519" /> Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 2 December 1959, page 2

The One Blown Bulb

I finally found what could have been a real winner in my candle crusade when I read an article from a 1920 newspaper. This article, while extolling the virtues of electric lights over “small wax candles,” did explain the difficulties of working with lights wired in “series.” You remember those: if one bulb went out, then the whole string went dark. Oh, my father (God rest his soul) would recall those lights I am sure! I can still hear him “discussing” this issue with the darkened string of lights. I bet if I had only asked right then, he would have acquiesced to my plea for candles!

New Christmas Tree Lights, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 12 December 1920

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 12 December 1920, section: Feature, page 6

Asbestos for Christmas?

Then I discovered even more support for my argument when I read this article from a 1913 newspaper. The very first sentence offered this advice:

“Asbestos snow for the Christmas tree and asbestos whiskers for Santa himself are part of the latest advice from the fire department.”

You see even the experts can be wrong!  Asbestos whiskers for Jolly Old St. Nick? Perhaps using reverse psychology, I could have wheedled those candles onto our tree.

Remember That X'Mas Trees, Easily Ignited, Often Bring Death through Carelessness, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 21 December 1913

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 21 December 1913, page 8

Bubble Christmas Tree Lights

Then my entire imaginary crusade for real candles on the Christmas tree fell apart when I discovered this advertisement in a 1947 newspaper article. It offered for sale my very favorite Christmas tree light of them all: the venerable “Bubble Light”! For only $3.98 I could get a whole set described as:

“NOMA BUBBLE LIGHTS for your Christmas tree…novel idea—the lights bubble and flicker like real candles and seem to make the tree dance with joy…nine lights, each 5 in. tall in assorted colors…special clip for fastening to tree…3.98

ad for Christmas tree bubble lights, San Diego Union newspaper advertisement 7 December 1947

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 7 December 1947, page 9

As you can see from this photo, I still adore bubble lights and have this one as a night light in my own home.

photo of a bubble nightlight

Photo: bubble nightlight. Credit: from the author’s collection.

NOMA & Christmas Lights

By the way, the San Diego Union article rekindled another Christmas memory. The NOMA label on Christmas lights was something I well remember my mother and father referring to when shopping for Christmas lights. NOMA (the National Outfit Manufacturers’ Association) began as a trade association and morphed into almost a monopoly on Christmas lights.

New NOMA X'Mas Lights, Oregonian newspaper article 20 December 1949

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 20 December 1949, page 14

You can read more about NOMA and Christmas lights history at this Library of Congress webpage.

Thinking about my love of bubble lights, I guess some things can change for the better; I can live without candles on my Christmas tree after all, as long as I have bubble lights!

Merry Christmas everyone—and now I have to go put the lights on our Christmas tree!

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Written by Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. Scott specializes in immigrant ancestry, especially from Bohemia (Czech Republic), Cornwall, the United Kingdom, and Italy. In addition to GenealogyBank.com, Scott has been recently published by Ohio Genealogy Society, National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International, SaveEllisIsland.com, MyHeritage.com, and Greater Cleveland Genealogical Society. He was a presenter at the 2012 World Congress of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences in Slovakia. You can follow Scott on his Facebook page at OnwardToOurPast and on his website/blog at OnwardToOurPast.

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