THE PRE-ELECTRIC ERA
In the days before electricity, Christmas trees were lighted with candles. Obviously a bit dangerous, inventive decorators came up with a multitude of different devices to make the burning tapers "safer", and keep them a little farther away from the tinder-dry tree needles. Below are a few examples of 19th century ingenuity.
Some examples of early beeswax candles used on Christmas trees:
Assorted glass "Christmas Lights". These units held water and cooking oil, and the wick device shown below was floated on top. When lit, these lights give a beautiful, sparkling effect in a darkened room. All of these examples are American, and date circa 1905. Other common uses of these delightful lights were as welcoming beacons on walkways and porches, window or mantle lights. In addition to the use of oil and water, some people used small candles, similar to the votive candles we use today. Other popular names for these lights are "Fairy Lights" and "Candle Cups".
Below is a German made floating wick kit for use with the Christmas Lights
All of the Christmas Lights shown above are in the "quilted" or "diamond" pattern, just one of the many pressed, mold blown or free blown patterns that collectors seek today. There were even lights molded in the likeness of popular political figures of the day, including Queen Victoria.
Below is pictured a Christmas Lantern, manufactured in 1871 of tin and colored glass. The outer glass shell slides up to facilitate the lighting of the taper within:
Several devices were available to attach plain candles to the tree. Below are two examples- one a "counterweighted" holder designed to always keep the candle upright and patented in 1867, and the other a simple candle clip. The counterweights are painted clay balls, and the single candle clip was once a much more cheerful red.
Below is an unusual and rare German "bough clip", dated 1876. It was designed to hold the candle out and away from the tree needles. It was not a successful invention, however, as the method used to hold the candle to the device was simply a spike which was to be inserted into the base. With the tapers being so small, the spike often cracked or split the candle at the base, making it useless. These clips were marketed for only two years.
The lighting of the tree late on Christmas eve or early Christmas morn' was an exciting affair. Parents would stand on each side of the tree, lighting the candles quickly from top to bottom. As the last taper was lit, the children would be invited into the room to share in the wonderment of the glowing tree. Sadly, the candles would only burn for a precious few minutes, and all too soon it would be time to blow them out. Some families would replace the candles for a re-lighting ceremony late in the evening, when the family would gather once more to make private Holiday wishes for the upcoming New Year.
Scenes from pre-1910 Christmas Postcards
Electric lighting of Christmas trees wasn't widespread in America until the mid-1920s, and even as late as the 1930s rural homes not yet wired for electricity would sometimes still use candles. Electric lights became truly universal by the beginning of World War II.
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