A closer look at holiday lights: How those festive lights became associated with the birth of Christ
by WILLIAM WRIGHT
Dec 07, 2011 | 2508 views | 0 0 comments | 28 28 recommendations | email to a friend | print
THESE CHRISTMAS LIGHTS are only a sample of the colorful displays decorating the homes of people in Bradley County. Madison Munck, above left, said it was a team effort for him and his siblings to pull off lighting the inside and outside of their great-grandmother’s home in Cleveland. The tradition of using lights in celebrations actually predates Christianity and remains a very popular expression of faith and beauty worldwide. Photos by WILLIAM WRIGHT
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Christmas lights have come a long ways from the days when only candles adorned many frost-covered windows on cold winter nights.

The use of decorative, festive lights during the holiday season is a long-standing tradition in many Christian and non-Christian cultures, bringing seasons greetings and holiday cheer to onlookers who find such displays of light to be breathtaking..

Ann Travis of Cleveland said her great-grandchildren gave her an unexpected pleasure on Thanksgiving Day by decorating her home with colorful lights while she was away.

“They really surprised me with this,” Travis said. “When I jumped out of the car I just screamed. I couldn’t believe it! They were up on the ladder hanging lights. I was totally surprised!”

Her great-grandson, Madison Munck, said it was a team effort for him and seven of his 11 siblings to pull off lighting the inside and outside of Travis’ house which is next door. The 14-year-old home-schooled teen said he did not know much about the history of Christmas lights but added, “This is how we celebrate Christmas.”

The use of lights in celebrations, however, has a history that predates the birth of Christ and can be traced back to ancient cultures who shared a very colorful past in promoting the divinity of light.

Earl W. Count in his book “4,000 Years of Christmas” noted, “The bright fires, the giving of presents, the merrymaking, the feasting, the processions with their lights and song — all these and more began (in Mesopotamia) three centuries before Christ was born.”

Ancient Northern people reportedly feared the darkness of December, so part of their magical rite was to decorate their homes with holly, mistletoe and evergreens because they seemed to have a supernatural resistance to winter.

Candles and bonfires were burned in an effort to help revive the sun. To many primitive people this seemed to work. In time these superstitions became traditions. But in other ancient areas the sun itself became an object of worship as a god.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “In the third and fourth centuries A.D., the cult of Mithra, carried and supported by the soldiers of the Roman Empire, was the chief rival to the newly developing religion of Christianity. As god of light, Mithra was associated with the Greek sun god, Helios, and the Roman Sol Invictus.”

Under, “The survival of Roman religion,” the Encyclopedia Britannica states, “For a time, coins and other monuments continued to link Christian doctrines with the worship of the Sun, to which Constantine had been addicted previously. But even when this phase came to an end, Roman paganism continued to exert other, permanent influences, great and small. The ecclesiastical calendar retains numerous remnants of pre-Christian festivals — notably Christmas, which blends elements including both the feast of the Saturnalia and the birthday of Mithra.”

Since Dec. 25 was actually the birthday of Mithra, the Iranian god of light, and the Roman festival of the birth of the unconquered sun was also celebrated at this time as “the festival of Saturnalia,” some people see the festive lights of Christmas as a carry-over of pagan rites to Christianity.

Others see it as a harmless integration of religious beliefs mixed with ancient traditions. Such blended practices have touched other objects of the Yuletide season.

In his book, “The Story of Christmas” Michael Harrison concluded that “It was apparently the fusion of two old customs; lights with evergreens, which gave us our modern Christmas tree.”

Other celebrations using lights also took place in December. For example, many Jewish families burn candles as part of the eight-day Festival of Lights commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple by the Maccabees after their victory over the Syrians.

In was in the 19th century, however, when a new light — the electric light — would take religious celebrations, especially Christmas, to a whole new level of colorful excitement and wonder.

In 1882, Edward Johnson, an associate of Thomas Edison, lit the first Christmas tree by the use of electricity with 80 small electric light bulbs. He also created the first string of electric Christmas lights that were then mass produced.

By 1900, department stores started using the new Christmas lights for their holiday displays. By the 1920s General Electric had improved upon the invention.

Today, colorful decorations have become a rite of passage, a holiday tradition. Festive lights can be seen all over Bradley County and across the country as people display attractive lights in all shapes and dazzling colors to commemorate the holiday season.

Despite their origin or the expenses associated with electricity, Christmas lights are as popular as ever and will ring in another season of bright holiday wishes.