The Victorians did lots of things that seem strange to us now – wearing approximately fifteen layers of clothing in the height of summer and cycling around on penny farthings being just two of them. But even for them, it still strikes us as a little counter-intuitive to put lots of naked flames on a great big piece of dry wood. So why did they put candles on their Christmas trees? And when did they stop? And what’s the most impressive modern take on this tradition?
To understand the reasoning behind the lit up tree, we have to go back to the origins of the Christmas tree in Germany. In the sixteenth century, Miracle Plays were performed in front of churches throughout the year, particularly on saints’ days. The 24th December was Adam and Eve’s day, and a key part of their story was the Paradise Tree, which represented the Garden of Eden. The Tree, constructed of a wooden pyramid, was paraded through the town beforehand as an advertisement. It is thought that people started mimicking the Paradise Tree as a Christmas decoration with their own wooden pyramids, or potted trees if they could afford them. These were then decorated to make them into a vision of paradise, with apples, brightly-coloured papers, and fabrics.
A lovely story explains when the candles became part of this display. It is said that the German preacher Martin Luther was walking through the forest on his way home, when he looked up to see stars shining through the evergreen branches. He told his children that it reminded him of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth at Christmas. He decided to bring a tree into his house and light it with candles to remind him of this.
Whether or not the involvement of a famous preacher adds credibility to this story, by the time Christmas trees were became popular in the United Kingdom in the 1840s, candles were very much part of the display. This was helped by images of important people with their candle-lit trees: in the UK, Queen Victoria and her family in 1841, and in the USA, with President Pierce in 1856. However, it wasn't easy to get candles to attach to Christmas trees. People used needles, wire and string as well as melted wax, with varying results. As a result, candles were rarely kept lit for more than half an hour, and even then, a bucket of sand or water was kept at the ready in case of emergency. Despite these precautions, fires were common and some insurance companies began to refuse to pay out for Christmas tree fires, as they become classed as “known risks” on insurance policies.
A less flammable alternative was required. This presented itself in 1882, when Edward Johnson of New York wired up his Christmas tree in his own home. Eighty bulbs in red, white and blue lit the tree, which Johnson rigged to rotate slowly in the window of his parlour.
It was a massive marketing success. By 1890, Johnson, and his partner Thomas Edison (yes, that Edison) had produced a brochure of 28 pages detailing variations of “Edison miniature lamps for Christmas trees”. In 1895, they featured on the Presidential Christmas tree, and though still prohibitively expensive for most – particularly for those without mains electricity – they became a festive aspiration that got progressively more affordable as the market responded.
Nowadays, we take fairy lights for granted, and since the introduction of cheap, cool LED versions, we delight in covering our trees in ever more lights. Modern lights are very unlikely to cause a fire and nothing is more magical than the soft glow of a Christmas tree when all the other lights are out.
Some people, of course, take things a bit further than a gentle glow in their living room. An Australian named David Richards lit up his tree with 518,838 lights in 2015, creating what was surely an awe-inspiring display. For the rest of us, however, a tree that looks more like stars twinkling through branches is probably more in keeping with the season.