It's hard to imagine a holiday season without twinkling lights, but holiday light displays—of the electric variety, at least—are a fairly recent phenomenon. Lights have always been an important part of the holidays, but until the 1880s, lights largely meant fire, either via the traditional Yule log (first burned in Germany in 1148, as a promise of the sun's return during the dark, dreary December months) or with candles, which often dotted branches of Christmas trees. If common sense suggests that candles and trees are a dangerous mix, that's because they are: Christmas tree fires were so common that starting in the early 1900s, insurance companies explicitly stated that they wouldn't cover damage from fire caused by Christmas trees.
Thankfully, another option was becoming viable—electric lights. The first electric light display was created in 1880 by Thomas Edison, who strung electric lights together and hung them around his Menlo Park Laboratory. Two years later, Edward H. Johnson, Edison's friend and partner, strung electric lights together and wrapped them around his Christmas tree, becoming the first person to struggle with the strange physics of wrapping a string of lights around a conical tree. The general public, still weary of electricity, didn't immediately accept Johnson and Edison's new technology, but others—like President Grover Cleveland, who requested that the White House tree be decorated only with electric lights in 1895—helped propel the popularity of electric lights.
In 1903, General Electric started offering the first pre-packaged string of electric Christmas lights, opening the decoration up to masses that had previously lacked the capital and savvy to string lights together on their own. In 1917, Albert Sadacca, a 17-year old whose family owned a novelty lighting company, suggested that the family take on the electric Christmas light business. The Sadacca's began selling multi-colored, pre-strung Christmas lights to the general public, and by the 1920s had become the National Outfit Manufacturers Association (NOMA), a trade organization that cornered the Christmas light industry until the 1960s, when competition from overseas forced them to fold.
Today, holiday lights are strung around much more than trees—opulent, over-the-top holiday displays have become a holiday fixture, spurring neighborhood competitions and inspiring plot-points in pop culture classics like National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Bellingrath Gardens Magic Christmas in Lights, in Mobile, Alabama, features some three million lights and over 950 displays. At Fantasy in Lights, in Callaway Gardens, Georgia, over eight million lights are spread across 15 different displays. And from November to January, two-million white lights illuminate the 144-square-block historic district in Saint Augustine, Florida.
Whether its millions of twinkling lights or a single, festive strand, we want to see what holiday decorations look like in your neighborhood—use the map above to submit your photos!