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The JimOnLight Guide to Christmas Lights, Parts 1-5

Back another year by popular demand and thousands of visits, the JimOnLight.com’s Guide to Christmas Lights is here!  To break this down a bit and hopefully keep the five parts of the JimOnLight.com Guide to Christmas Lights:

Part One:  CHRISTMAS LIGHTING HISTORY

Part One is geared towards sharing where Christmas Lighting got its start, including going WAY back to talk a bit about what actually happens in the sky around Christmas time (or Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Flying Spaghetti Monster time, or whatever flavor of religion you pick for the Holidays) and how we’ve been dealing with it for a few thousand years.

Part Two:  MODERN LAMP TYPES AND SIZES

Part Two takes some of the most basic information about Christmas lighting – the light sources – and breaks them down for the reader to make it easy to understand and identify different kinds of Christmas Lights.  You know, for that moment when you have to pull the ball of lights out of the box in the garage and actually NOT burn your house down.

Part Three:  FORM FACTORS of CHRISTMAS LIGHTS

Rain lights, curtain strands, cascades, and all kinds of other terms that mean something about the different arrays that Christmas lighting come in – Part Three of the JimOnLight.com’s Guide to Christmas Lighting is all about telling those arrays apart so you can get back inside and drink some Wassail!

Part Four:  CHRISTMAS LIGHT POWER AND SAFETY

This is an important one – Part Four talks about how NOT to get yourself dead while doing all of that Christmas light installation!

Part Five:  CHRISTMAS LIGHTING MATH

…not last, not least, and definitely not the end of the series, but perhaps one of my favorites!  A quick overview of some of the basic and important electrical equations that can help you make a little more sense out of the task of hanging Holiday Illumination!

Drop us a comment below if you like the JimOnLight.com’s Guide to Christmas Lights – we’re dedicated to bringing you the best!

JimOnLight.com’s Guide to Christmas Lights, Part Five: Christmas Lighting MATH!

PART FIVE:
Christmas Lighting MATH

It’s that time of year again – time for hanging those crazy little mini incandescents, C-6’s, and LED strands that you’ve added in (because they’re the “newest, brightest colors” [!!!]), and you’re digging out the cube taps and power strips.  You’re looking through drawers and cabinets for the little bags of spare lamps, fuses, and blinker lamps that you’ve stashed all year, or from last year.  Yeah, we know the drill.

Have you ever noticed that many of the packages of Christmas lights that you buy say things like “do not plug more than X strands together at once,” where X is a number like 3 or 5, depending on several factors like lamp size and wire length?  Well, surprise, there is a good, solid reason for that!  Generally, that bit of instructions and the numbers associated with them has something to do with preventing you from burning your house down and killing you and your whole family while you sleep.  I mean, generally.  But who really reads those directions, right?

If you are smart and you like your family and house and nice stuff, I would advise following those directions.  First, let me show you, for example, how fast a Christmas tree turns a house into carbon rubble when it catches on fire from, for example, an electric short:

Pretty crazy, huh?  That’s why we follow directions.  The days of a stack of Edison plugs stuck together in an outlet that’s way overloaded need to be gone.  Be smart, and you’ll not have to worry about these kinds of scenarios.

Unfortunately I have to put the disclaimer in here that the information below is to be used at your own risk – JimOnLight.com will not be held responsible if you cause damage or death.  If you’re not a qualified electrician and have questions about something that a qualified electrician should be doing, don’t do it.

When trying to figure out how many strands of christmas lights to stick end to end together, it’s best to just follow the directions on the package.  Remember just a minute ago when I said “Generally, that bit of instructions and the numbers associated with them has something to do with preventing you from burning your house down and killing you and your whole family while you sleep” ?  This is the part of the story where that actually shows you that it’s easier to follow the directions than it is to burn your whole house down.  However, let’s just say you have limited information, or small combinations of variables like individual lamp voltage, individual lamp amperage, total strand wattage, or for some reason, wire gauge of the strand.  You can manipulate the good old Power Formula to give you the answers using some constants that you can kind of take for granted.  You know the power formula, right?  The “West Virginia Formula?”

Here are some things you can pretty much use at your own risk as constant numbers to help with the figurin’ of the math, when it comes up:

  • In the USA, which is where I live, the voltage at the wall outlet is gonna be somewhere between 110-120 volts.  For a constant standard number, you can use 120 volts as the line voltage at the wall when you’re calculating, it’s the upper limit.
  • Typically in your home, the wall outlets and circuits therein are going to be rated at either 15 amps or 20 amps.  The best way to figure out which each one is would be to go find that outlet in the breaker box and verify the circuit’s amperage rating on the breaker itself.  I just went and checked the breaker box here in my apartment, and all of the circuits in my place are 15 amp circuits.  I’m guessing that a lot of your homes are going to be on 15 amp breakers.
  • A large majority of christmas light strands are wired with 22 gauge (awg) wiring, which has a total ampacity rating of about 5 amps.  A strand of 150 incandescent mini lamps at 36 watts total is only pulling 0.3 amps.
  • If you can verify that all wiring from the load to the breaker is the proper gauge for maximum wattage use for a 20 amp circuit, that circuit will provide a maximum of 2400 watts.  The same circuit on a 15 amp breaker will give a maximum wattage of 1800 watts.  Please note – this is if all conditions, like all sections of wiring and multi-gang units, like power strips and cube taps.
  • For a reason that I have yet to figure out, light strands are calculated on this odd “minus two per fifty lamps” constant.  What I mean by that is the calculations on the entire strand of lights seem to be calculated by taking away 2 lamps per every 50.  For example, if you calculate all of the variables of your typical string of 150, you get numbers that are for 50 lamps, but the actual ratings are for 144 lamps, which is 6 less than 150, or 2 per every 50 lamps.  Weird, huh?

Let’s put some of this information to the test and figure out a challenge.  I just found a 150-lamp string of mini-incandescents.  I want to know how many amps this string will pull as a whole.  There are some things we know, but we don’t know amps.  Let’s manipulate that good ol’ Power Formula:

Easy, yeah?

Okay, here’s another one:
How many strands can I plug end to end, knowing that A) the wire on the strand of lights is probably 22 gauge, B) each strand of 150 draws about 0.3 amps, C) the 22 gauge wire in the strand is rated for about 5 amps, and D) there is a 3 amp fuse in line on each strand of 150 lights.  I plan to plug the business end of these into the wall, rated at 15 amps.

Well, I checked the package, and the package said not to plug more than five strands together, for a total of no more than 210 watts.

Technically, if I multiply the 36 watt strands together in total, so five total strands, that equals 180 watts.  A 6th strand added would give me 216 watts.  216 watts, which draws 1.8 amps, is well under the 3 amp fuse rating.  So what’s the right answer?

The right answer is what the package said, in this case.  The package said no more than five strands end to end.  Sure, you could plug together that extra strand, because even with adding that sixth strand, the total amperage is only 1.8 amps, which is still 1.2 amps under the 3 amp fuse rating.  However, when something goes wrong and you burn down your house, your neighbor’s house, and your other neighbor’s house, what is going to happen when you get sued is that the fire inspector is going to somehow find that sixth strand plugged in, and the box told you that you were only supposed to plug five strands together.

See how this works?  This is purely legal.  When you go outside of the package’s advisory, you thereby null and void any warranty, even though technically the product could handle it.  It’s a slippery slope.  You have to be careful.

Okay, here’s another one:
Let’s say I have a 12 gauge heavy duty extension cable to which I will plug a 15 amp power strip with a circuit breaker.  How many strands of christmas lights can I plug into that power strip and still be okay, technically speaking?

We know a few things here – the 12 gauge heavy duty cable is rated at 20 amps.  However, our power strip is only rated for 15 amps, so that brings our total load down to 15 amps.  The weakest rating in the group is where to place your limit.  So if you were to be completely ridiculous and stupid and plug another extension cable between that power strip and the heavy duty extension cable that was, say, a 16 gauge cable (rated at 13 amps), then the system is knocked down to 13 amps.  Epic fail can happen really quickly here, so pay attention to what you’re doing.

Since we can’t plug more than five strands end to end, we can use the power strip to plug in several sets of five as groups of five.  Make sense?  My power strip is rated for 15 amps, so I need to figure out if I can plug a strand of five strands into each of the six female outlets on the power strip.  Math time!

Let’s go a step further – how many of these power strips with six strings of five strands of christmas lights can we plug into the wall in one 2-gang outlet?

This really depends on the load rating on the specific circuit you’re plugging your christmas lights into, as well as how many other branch circuits are connected to that specific circuit breaker.  What I mean is that sometimes several outlets in your home or garage can be running to one circuit breaker.  That sucks, sure, but it happens, and it happens a lot.  My condo, for example, has a total of 12 2-gang Edison outlets on the walls, and a total of five circuit breakers controlling them all.  One of the circuit breakers in my condo has four branch circuits – on a 15 amp circuit breaker.  That means that over four 2-gang outlets in my apartment I can only plug a total of 15 amps’ worth of devices.  That kinda sucks.

You need to be able to know the rating of your circuit breaker in order to be able to answer the question above.  Go open your circuit breaker panel or fuse box and check what the rating is on the circuit you plan to use.  Check out these images below – a 15 amp and 20 amp breaker, and a 15 amp and 20 amp screw-type fuse:

Breakers - notice the rating number painted on the actual switch itself:

Fuses – again, notice the rating number (15 and 20, for 15 amp and 20 amp):

Remember from above, a 15 amp breaker or fuse is only rated for 1800 watts, and a 20 amp breaker or fuse is rated for 2400 watts.  So could I plug in two of my power strip rigs into a 15 amp breaker or fuse?

The answer is no, no you cannot.  Each of the power strips has six strands of five strings of lights end to end, for a total wattage of 1080 watts, drawing 9 amps.  Two of them into one circuit that had nothing else plugged into it totals 2160 watts at 18 amps, which is definitely too much for a 15 amp circuit breaker or fuse.  However, if the circuit was a 20 amp rated circuit, 2160 watts at 18 amps (or two of the power strips with six strands of five strings of lights at 9 amps each) would be close to the limit, but acceptable.  The biggest thing that people forget to check is the existing loads on a branched circuit – like a fridge, appliance, radio, or what-have-you, that pushes the circuit to the point of tripping the protection (breaker or fuse).

I need to tell you all - if you have aluminum wiring in your house, none of this stuff applies to you, as aluminum wiring is dangerous and scary. Call an electrician to have that replaced.

Generally, some good rules and practices to abide by when doing electricity math with christmas lights:

  • if there are instructions on the packaging relating to how many strands you can plug in end to end, follow it.
  • if you plug something in and it trips a breaker or blows a fuse, something is wrong – fix it before proceeding.
  • never overload a circuit, ever.
  • if you don’t know the answer, get in touch with a qualified professional who can help you figure the answer.

Be safe out there, folks!  Safety first, they’re just christmas lights after all!

day 33: starry night

Thanks, Elcosh Images, Aubuchon Hardware, Fuel FixHome Depot, and Power Stream!

JimOnLight.com’s Guide to Christmas Lights, Part 3: Form Factors of Christmas Lights

jimonlight-guide-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:

g12-globe-linear-jimonlight

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?

drape

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-jimonlight

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

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

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-lights

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:

rope-closeup

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:

ropelights-roll

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!

JimOnLight.com’s Guide to Christmas Lights, Part 2: Modern Lamp Types and Sizes

jimonlight-guide-christmas-lights

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:

lamps-jimonlight-christmas-lights

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:

mini-philips-jimonlight

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:

thumb-c-7-jimonlight

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 JimOnLight.com) 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:

c-9-lamps-jimonlight

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:

solar-philips-led-jimonlight

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:

g25-led-jimonlight

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:

g25scale

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

c-7-g25-led-2-jimonlight

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!

leg-lamps

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

beer-can-christmas-lights

Next up:
Part Three – Form Factor of Christmas Lights.  Stay tuned!

JimOnLight.com’s Guide to Christmas Lights, Part 1: History of Christmas Lights

jimonlight-guide-christmas-lights

PART ONE:
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.

nefertiti

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!

buddy_zodiac

Now, electric christmas lights, on the other hand…

edison-ad-christmas-lights

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:

edward-johnson-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:

first-edition-christmas-lights

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:

decorative-light-bulbs

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:

decorative-1

decorative-2

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:

bubble-lights-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:

fluorescent-christmas-lights

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!

Christmas Lights – With A Mind of Their Own

I just found a video of a really kitchy and pretty funny xmas lighting display – I just wonder what the control systems for these crazy installs are!  Do you think this is DIY, arduino controlled?  Would it not be just wicked to hook a Hog III up to your house?!

The music is pretty cool, give it the two minutes to watch.

Thanks, Responsive Arts!

Holy Creeping Crap, It’s Christmas Lights Time!

chevy_tree

Yes, it’s the time of year when all electrical safety rules go flying out the window like a vegetarian running from Texas de Brazil.  The same time of year, in fact, that people all over the world will be stringing up runs of lighting in LED, incandescent, and in some applications, even fluorescent christmas lights.

Remember that scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where Chevy Chase plugged in the redonkulously large holiday display on his house that he had installed, and it caused the nuclear power plant to have to flip some switch for more power?  Yeah.  I think of Christmas lighting like that.  But I wish I could give the world a class on Christmas lighting – sometimes it’s just not necessary to put the whole nativity scene lit with disco balls AND the full-sized Santa and the full reindeer team up this year.  Seriously!

In the up and coming few days, I’m gonna publish a few guides on Christmas lighting – controllers, different types, color information, and a few other informative-y things.  This is the time of year when people are planning their massive holiday lighting displays, so I want to help if I can help at all!  There are many things to consider – what kind of lights to buy, how to make them turn on, and most importantly, how to make your lights kick everyone else’s lights’ rears in your neighborhood without setting the whole neighborhood aflame.

And now, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra Christmas Lighting video that everyone has seen seven triple gazillion times: