Posts’s Guide to Christmas Lights, Part 3: Form Factors of Christmas Lights


Part Three:
Form Factor of Christmas Lights

Christmas lights typically come in more configurations than just a line of lamps connected with a plug and a connector – there are strands that are shaped like a net, there are strands that look like icicles, and others that are are just wacky. For example, other than a linear array of christmas lights, you can buy cascade (drape) lights, net (mesh) lights, icicle strands, curtain strands, and even strands of lights that come with a frame that looks like something significant. You know, significant – like a deer or fat Santa or Frosty or something.

You can use any of these form factors for anything your heart desires, really – there’s no hard fast rules on christmas lighting design, except for not getting yourself electrocuted and/or falling off the roof and getting dead.

First and foremost, the strand, string, or whatever you want to call a linear run of christmas lamps. It is, in effect, a string of point sources.  I won’t even bother posting a picture of them, as I would hope everyone knows what they look like. Okay, maybe I’ll post a picture. Here’s a string of LED G12 globes I just got from Philips:


They’re a string of lights. Wrap em, sling em, stick them around a window, a tree, a bush, your friends – they’re christmas lights! Sometimes it’s fun just to stick some christmas lights in a glass vase and plug them in atop your desk or counter for decoration. Why not?


Cascade strings (also called drape lights) always remind me of Austrian curtains, sort of – they have different layers that hang lower than others. They come in solid colors, a multicolor version, and a white or clear. Cascade lights can go in places like large windows, across the gutter hanging down, or an interesting usage I have seen in recent past was hanging them under the fullness of a large, round tree – it made the tree look as if it had a scallopy round skirt.


Mesh lights (also called net lights) are just that – christmas lights wired in such a way that they resemble a net of sorts. I’ve seen them in all colors, multicolor, white, and a “smart net” kind of set, with a controller and the ability to individually function. Mesh lights are excellent for throwing over a round bush in your yard, small trees, and anywhere that you need to cover square footage with dimension.


Icicle lights, like in my crude little sketch above, are little “randomly” hung independent strings of lamps off of a support wire bundle. The randomness is usually in the form of a repeating pattern of five or six hanging strands, and you can usually install them in groups that look similarly random. Icicle lights can look interesting hanging off of the gutter in the front of the house, or in a-frame roofs, as the icicles will hang straight down. Don’t go overboard though!


Curtain lights (also called rain lights) are similar to icicle lights in the fact that they have independent strings. Curtain lights are all one length, come in single colors, multiple colors, and white. Same ideas apply with curtain lights as do icicle lights. I always wanted to wrap a large architectural column completely in curtain lights from the bottom, repeating the primary colors in layers up the column. I think that would look pretty cool, especially if you had independent control of each color!

Another form worthy of mention is rope lighting:


Rope lighting is, in my opinion, a really weird animal.  In itself, it is a string of light sources – but due to its construction and materials (like the light-transmitting plastic), it becomes a glowing structure with multiple point sources.  So, in comparison to a string of mini-lights on your house, the mini-light string will look like a string of points of light whereas a string of rope light has a tendency to look like a 1″ thick line of light with multiple sources in it.  It’s not bad if done correctly, but mixed in with other point sources, it has a tendency to look pretty gnarly.

Here’s a close-up of a rope light – obviously they have different outside dimensions and widths.  Notice the way that the plastic covering was faceted in the molding process:


Go with rope lighting on its own if you decide to use it – my opinion is that mixing it with point source strands kind of looks funky.  Obviously there are exceptions to the rule, and if you figure out how to use them together, awesome!  It does have properties of light that are very unique, and in their own regard, stunning.  Rope light looks especially awesome when it gets covered with snow – like a glowing sheet of snow.

Also, it comes in really long lengths:


Amazon, funny enough, usually has ridiculous deals on christmas lighting, and usually something in each form (mesh, curtain, icicle, linear, cascades, rope lights), and you can usually get large quantities very quickly.  Also, you can certainly canvas the dollar stores, thrift shops, and places like Target for deals, but you’re not gonna find anything like that until after the holiday is over, usually.

Here’s a link to just a general LED christmas lights search on Amazon, and a link to a search for christmas lights sets.  There are several excellent manufacturers of christmas lighting in all form factors – Sylvania, General Electric, NOMA Christmas Lighting, the big guys – but there is a smaller scale supplier that I think rocks – Bethlehem Lighting, near where I grew up in Illinois.  There was always a large festival called the East Peoria Festival of Lights around the end of November each year, and this company supplied the lighting.  They also do commercial sized supply, which is something I’ve been meaning to write more about.

Commercial-scale christmas lighting supply?  I bet those christmas parties are out of this world!

Next up:  Part Four – Christmas Light Control Systems – stay tuned!’s Guide to Christmas Lights, Part 2: Modern Lamp Types and Sizes


Part Two:
Modern Lamp Sizes for Christmas Lights

Christmas lights, like everything else, have various sizes, wattages, and source types to choose from, especially if you really look hard for specialty stuff. From incandescent mini-lamps to LEDs, even fluorescent christmas lights and OLED ribbon (they are in prototype!) – there are many different colors, brightnesses, and styles to use. Most of these lamp types also have the option for a diffused (frosted, “ceramic,”) appearance to the lamp or a transparent version where the filament can be seen when the lamps are energized. I’ve sketched a few lamp base sizes for reference – not to scale, but not horribly out of scale:


First on the left of the image above is the mini lamp, which you should recognize – it’s probably the most popular christmas light style, LED or non-LED. When you buy a strand of mini-lamps, you typically get a spare lamp or two, and a blinker lamp (it’s the red-tipped one in the group) that makes your strand blink, low-tech style. The blinker in a set of lights works like the thermostat in your house, like an old-school relay – the bimetal strip inside gets too hot, it opens the circuit. When it cools down, it closes the circuit. Rinse, lather, repeat. A plug-side version of this concept also exists, called a “winker plug,” which works the same exact way (thermal switch) except housed in a plug adaptor.

Here’s a picture of a mini-lamp set of 200:


On the drawing, to the right of the mini-lamp is the C-7 lamp. I always remember the general size of the C-7 apart from other lamps of that dimension because it’s about as large as my thumb, from the first knuckle to the tip – like here:


You’ve seen those from time to time in other applications, too – granted it’s not exactly the same C-7 lamp like for christmas lights, but some tail lights are C-7-ish, lots of home lamps, etc.

The C-7 is like the little brother (or sister, equal opportunities at to the C-9 lamp, which is one to the right of the C-7 on the drawing. The C-9 is a bit bigger – here’s a picture from this morning at Target:


This approximate size is also used in other applications, but with different bases – flame-tipped chandelier lamps, candelabra lamps for sconces around your house, and tons of others.

The 3 lamps we’ve already discussed are incandescent lamps, obviously. Lots of LED sources are appearing (and have been for some time) in stores and all over the place. There are several types to choose from, and if you look a little bit under the surface while you’re shopping lights, you’ll find some that are brighter and definitely superior to others.

First in LEDs, the standard 5mm LED source – this one with a wide angle for a jewel-shimmer effect. The lenses on the LED are typically smooth, and each lamp is made to spread the beam wide. I found a really cool set of these this morning while out shopping that are solar-powered:


You’ve seen the kind of LED lamp to the right of the wide angle source – it’s a typical round lens LED type with a medium-esque throw. Looking through a box of LEDs in this configuration just a little while ago, they don’t typically provide much information on beamspread for 5mm LED christmas lights. We can all wish, right?

The next kind of light is a globe shaped LED source. It’s pretty simple other than that, and there are different sizes of globe lamps. They also usually are available in a clear globe or some kind of customized jewel-cut globe, like this one below, which is a G12:


G12 lamps are an alternative to the look of mini-lamps and strawberry-shaped C style lamps.  If you look at a G12 versus a C-7 lamp, you get an idea about the size of a G12 globe – it’s approximately 1/2″ wide. The larger globe version (at least in LED land) is the G25, which is about an inch wide. A G25 lamp is about the same size as a US quarter, and is mostly a decorative lamp:


Here’s a G12 lamp intermingling with C-7s, all LED:


In the case of LED source christmas lights, no matter what size lamp you get – G12, G25, C7, a light shaped like the state of Massachusetts – the “shape” part of the light (strawberry shaped, globe, Massachusetts) is typically a plastic or acrylic lens of sorts that diffuses the light.  Incandescent C-7s and mini lights are glass, of course – even in the case of something ridiculous like a string of chili pepper lights or a string of little fat santas or something, the shape around the source is a plastic shape, and the light inside is probably a mini.  The plastic figure just sits over the lamp.

You probably already knew that, huh.  Well, in case you didn’t, check out these completely ridiculous set of leg lamp christmas lights from the movie “A Christmas Story” AAAAAAAA!


Novelty christmas lights come in so many different shapes and ideas that it makes my bald head spin.


Next up:
Part Three – Form Factor of Christmas Lights.  Stay tuned!’s Guide to Christmas Lights, Part 1: History of Christmas Lights


Christmas Light History

Call them what you want – “holiday” lights, Kwanzaa lights, FSM celebration lights, or just plain Christmas lights – it’s time to load-in your illuminated display and play “whose is bigger” with your neighbors. Every year about this time (and in many, many tacky cases, earlier) we put up lighting around, inside, and attached to our houses to celebrate whatever it is that we celebrate. I’m from central Illinois, so I always associate christmas lights with being freezing cold!

This upcoming weekend seems to be the most popular time of the year to haul out and re-install your grand christmas lighting display. There are many conflicting ideas as to when is appropriate to put up your christmas lights: some people say no earlier than December 1, and some people say that Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) is acceptable. Frankly, I could care less – put them up whenever you would like. Just be forewarned that if you leave them up too long after the Christmas holiday, people are probably gonna make fun of you behind your back!

When you go to buy your christmas lights and associated gack that is needed for your display (extension cables, cube taps and power strips, etc), you’re going to be inundated with sizes, shapes, colors (of both lamps and wire), and stuff to attach the lighting to the side of your house. It’s a production. Make sure that you’re ready before you start into the task, you know? It’s like the phrase, “never plumb when the stores are closed.”

The History of Christmas Lighting

Have you ever really thought about this before? They had to start somewhere, right?

“Christmas” lighting actually goes back way into the history of ancient civilizations. There wasn’t a sense of Christmas really until the Christians came along with the whole Jesus birth and all. The idea of worshipping the Sun as a god came about, well, when the sun went away each day. Christianity, Hindu, Islam, the ancient Greeks and Romans, etcetera – it’s all based on worshipping the Sun to help the crops grow, heat the earth, provide light, and generally allow everything to stay alive – something that (rumor has it) the ancient civilizations kinda liked.


Each year when the winter came, people in ancient times would build fires at night to “lure back” the Sun, which would go “away” earlier and earlier every day that the winter stumbled on. Obviously when you’re cold and ancient, you would probably think “man, I am one cold dude right now. I hope that the Sun comes back tomorrow!” I know I would.

As with Evolutionists and Creationists, there is an alternate version of why Christmas came about, and is based on the winter solstice. Civilizations in ancient history located in the northern hemisphere of earth probably noticed that all year long, the Sun moves south a little more each day during the summer, through autumn, and into the end of the year months. On December 22 of the calendar year, the Sun stops moving south – it actually rises lower and lower in the sky each time it makes its daily appearance. The December 22 date is significant because that day the day that the Sun stops moving south in the sky, and does not move north for December 22, 23, or 24. To ancient civilizations, this symbolized death of the Sun. On December 25, the Sun moves about one degree north, signalling the “rebirth” of the Sun, something to be celebrated, as warmer temperatures, food growing, and not dying of the cold is a good thing.

So, depending on your beliefs, either the Christmas holiday celebrates the alignment of the Sun and foreshadows the spring, or it is a celebration of crucifixion, death, and resurrection of someone named Jesus Christ. Either way, whatever tickles your fancy!


Now, electric christmas lights, on the other hand…


Back when people could only use candles on their trees (you know, because christmas lights hadn’t even been invented), the tree would only get put up in the house for a few days, if that long. It’s that funny way that fire interacts with dry timber that made it hard to really do much but watch the tree to make sure that it wasn’t going to burn down your whole neighborhood.

1901 GE Ad 2

The birth of christmas lights actually goes back very far into history, around the Early Modern Period (1500’s, approximately). Electric christmas lights, on the other hand, were invented by an associate of Tommy Edison back in 1882 – the inventor, Edward Hibberd Johnson, who at the time was the VP of Edison Electric Light Company, had it in his head to hand wire 80 red, white, and blue incandescent lamps about the size of a pinball to a pine tree. Johnson displayed this new invention in his parlor on Fifth Avenue in NYC on the 22nd of December 1882, which made that night the opening night for electric christmas tree lighting and made Johnson the father of the electric christmas tree lights.

A reporter for the Detroit Post and Tribune wrote a review of Johnson’s christmas light display, a historical record of the rockingness of the first christmas lights! Croffut’s review in 1882:

Last evening I walked over beyond Fifth Avenue and called at the residence of Edward H. Johnson, vice-president of Edison’s electric company. There, at the rear of the beautiful parlors, was a large Christmas tree presenting a most picturesque and uncanny aspect. It was brilliantly lighted with many colored globes about as large as an English walnut and was turning some six times a minute on a little pine box. There were eighty lights in all encased in these dainty glass eggs, and about equally divided between white, red and blue. As the tree turned, the colors alternated, all the lamps going out and being relit at every revolution. The result was a continuous twinkling of dancing colors, red, white, blue, white, red, blue—all evening.

I need not tell you that the scintillating evergreen was a pretty sight—one can hardly imagine anything prettier. The ceiling was crossed obliquely with two wires on which hung 28 more of the tiny lights; and all the lights and the fantastic tree itself with its starry fruit were kept going by the slight electric current brought from the main office on a filmy wire. The tree was kept revolving by a little hidden crank below the floor which was turned by electricity. It was a superb exhibition.

Nice. Thanks for inventing christmas lights, Edward! I present you with Edward Johnson’s electric lamp christmas tree:


Christmas lights used to come in “crate sets,” which was basically a wooden box with all of the stuff you’d need to set up your lights – the bases, wire, and the lamps. The lamps look lacquer-dipped or some other kind of chemical paint for the glass. Check it out, a version from 1906, made by Empire:


Christmas light lamps got craaaazy in the 1915-1920 era. People made lamps that looked like birds, like policemen, Indians, flowers, pumpkins, and a whole lot more completely random stuff like that. For example, here’s a cut sheet of some package assortments some company was selling:


Yep. Pumpkins, Santa, and a witch – what an original combination!

Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, figurine and different styles of lamp shapes (round, cones, cones with ribs, etc) were experimented into the market. In the late 1920’s to the Great Depression era, a weird direction took place in the shape of christmas light lamps, at least in my opinion. With the market crashed and people poor everywhere, companies started producing the “matchless star,” which was a crazy looking electric star lamp. Check these out, they’re wild:



After World War II, in the economic boom that followed, interesting stuff like bubble lamps hit the market, as well as the aluminum christmas tree and those color wheel spotlights that would illuminate the tree from underneath. The bubble lamps look pretty neat – apparently a type of antifreeze type material (methyl something or other) was used in the “bubble chamber” so as to be able to withstand the heat. Here’s a picture of an early bubble lamp, circa-1947:


Over the next fifty years all kinds of stuff has happened – manufacturers have come and gone, products have entered and left the market, and progress has changed all kinds of things from the metal in conductors to the efficiency of tungsten filaments. GE, Sylvania, and many others have come out with products like the Lighted Ice lamp (lamp covered with chunks of colored glass), the Tinsel Light (yep, a lamp embedded in tinsel), and the ever-so-popular reflector lamps, which were mini incandescents with little hazy plastic reflectors on each lamp. If you have been alive in the 1900’s at all, your parents probably had thousands of these things over the years. I remember having them as far back as the mid-1990s.

My favorite historical christmas light set is by far the fluorescent christmas lights from Sylvania. How cool! They were essentially cold cathode sources, but they’re white when they’re not energized. Check out these crazy colors:


I totally want some fluorescent christmas lights. I think I might have to make some!

A side note for this post:
I did a lot of research on this five part series, especially the history section. I cannot believe how many resources there are on the internet for christmas light history. Awesome. From the invention of the concept to the way that the business of christmas lighting has progressed over the years, it’s all out there.

You have to see the following websites if you’re interested in the history of christmas lights:

Thanks for the great information!

Check out Part Two:  Christmas light lamp sizes and types!  Exciting!