Stephanie Dragoi, ‘24
Decorative lights are one of the most ubiquitous hallmarks of the Christmas season, illuminating houses, shops, restaurants, and boulevards across the nation and world. The sudden radiance that floods cold winter nights has a surprisingly recent history as well as less cheerful present effects.
The use of light to celebrate Christmas goes back to the holiday’s religious roots, and symbolizes Christ being the “light of the world” (John 9:5). Decorating for Christmas with lights was first popularized in 18th-century Germany, when candles were attached to Christmas trees with melted wax. Eventually, candle holders were designed for Christmas trees, but the fire hazard of this decoration clearly created a necessity for a better electrical solution. Edward H. Johnson, vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company, answered this demand, decorating his Christmas tree with 80 hand-wired red, white, and blue lights, and earning the enviable title of “Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights.” After Grover Cleveland used electrical Christmas lights to decorate the White House Christmas Tree in 1895, indoor decorative lights grew in popularity, mostly among wealthier Americans. By 1905, these colorful lights began to be used outside as well, and soon, strings of small incandescent bulbs adorned houses, businesses, streetlamps, and even skyscrapers.
After many Americans forwent their Christmas lights in support of World War II efforts, mass suburbanization accompanied the nation’s reinvigorated enthusiasm for these cheerful decorations. After living in darkness, fear, and loss for so long, Christmas lights were a symbol of hope and joy for the nation. During the pandemic winter of 2020, holiday lights served a similar purpose, as decorating with and admiring them became a popular COVID-safe activity that helped bring smiles to people’s faces, and for many, served as a sign of solidarity.
The visual impact of these Christmas decorations goes beyond communities on Earth into outer space—NASA’s Suomi NPP satellite data has recorded an up to 50% increase in the light intensity of US cities from space. The greatest change was observed not in densely populated urban areas, but in small towns and suburbs with many single-family homes and plenty of lawn space for lights. The brightness of American suburbs tells a story of economic progress and opportunity. The ability of so many Americans to afford these lights, in contrast to when they were first popularized, is a sign of how the U.S. economy has matured. Hiring contractors to install lavish light displays is becoming an increasingly popular service, reflecting the rise of the service industry and of aesthetic professions, which create valuable jobs as they become increasingly important to future economic development.
Unfortunately, in today’s modern world, holiday lights also serve as a symbol for pronounced energy inequality. In America today, more than 150 million holiday light sets are sold each year, illuminating 80 million households and yet accounting for only about 0.2% of the nation’s electrical usage each December. The United States expends more than 6.6 billion kilowatt hours of electricity on holiday lights alone each year, more than the total national energy consumption of many developing countries, such as El Salvador (5.3 billion kwH), Tanzania (4.8 billion kwH), and Cambodia (3.0 billion kwH). Entire suburbs decked out in holiday lights are something Americans definitely take for granted, but many developing countries lack sufficient energy to power household refrigerators and create essential jobs in the energy sector.
Another hidden difficulty behind Christmas lights comes with recycling them. Because they are wired as series electrical circuits, one faulty bulb usually makes the whole string of lights unusable. More than 20 million pounds of discarded Christmas lights are shipped to Shijiao, China, now labeled as the “world capital for recycling Christmas lights,” each year. Up until recently, these lights were burned to collect the copper wire inside them, releasing toxic gases into the air. In contrast to the colorful radiance of American suburbs, the skies of Shijiao were filled with dark clouds of fumes. Today, the wires’ coatings are more safely ground up, and some residents have found innovative ways to reuse them, such as turning them into rubber soles for slippers. While more American cities and manufacturers are trying to recycle Christmas lights locally, there is simply less of a market for rubber and plastic in the U.S., again often leading to unfortunate environmental effects because of their use in power plants.
So, while holiday lights are always appreciated as a beautiful symbol for the spirit of Christmas, their larger significance is not often recognized. Eliminating our colorful Christmas bulbs is not the solution—they’ve become an important part of our communities, traditions, and even our economy. However, remembering the wider implications of these decorations serves as a valuable reminder of our responsibility as a nation, which carries far beyond the strings of bulbs on our porches and lawns.