Once upon a time December had none of the Christmas traditions we know today. Then, in the mid-nineteenth century, the magic of Christmas appeared. In 1823 A Visit from St. Nicholas, was published, followed by A Christmas Carol in 1843. In1841, Prince Albert introduced the tradition of the Christmas tree to Great Britain and in 1856, President Franklin Pierce had one set up in the White House. In 1870 Christmas decorations went on sale in Macy’s and real Christmas trees in Washington Square Park. Initially these trees were decorated with candles, but the risk of fire was so high that, in 1882, Edward Hibberd Johnson, Thomas Edison’s partner, invented a string of coloured electric lights to wrap around the festive tree, thereby establishing a tradition that has hardly changed since and is still very popular.
Christmas Lights in Regent Street
Christmas lights were invented well before domestic electricity became widespread and, originally, they were extremely expensive. Around the year 1900 a string of 16 lights cost around 12 dollars, the equivalent of 350 dollars today. In fact, they only really began to be mass produced from the 1930s onwards.
According to the Smithsonian, now over 150 million sets of lights are sold every year in the United States (and then added to the piles of other forgotten decorations in the attic). These lights are used in 80 million homes and, in December, they consume approximately 6 percent of America’s entire electrical energy supply.
It has also become common to use lights outside, so now towns and cities look completely different during the Christmas period. A particularly famous example of this is London, where the tradition of Christmas lights began in 1954 in Regent Street. Here, the local businesses and shop owners – members of the Regent Street Association – organised the first ever Christmas street lights as they wanted the post-war city to look more cheerful, at least at Christmas. In the 1950s and ‘60s, other streets began putting up Christmas lights, too, and these decorations soon became a key tradition in London’s festive calendar.
The trailer for Love Actually, one of the best-loved Christmas films
It has also become common to use lights outside, so now towns and cities look
completely different during the Christmas period.
Perhaps it is true, though, that all that glitters is not gold, as in recent years the problem of light pollution caused by Christmas lights has become increasingly evident. A NASA
report has shown that the luminosity of certain urban areas in the United States increases by between 30 and 50% in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year.
Light pollution drastically reduces the visibility of the night sky. It is if we had agreed to scrap the Milky Way in order to decorate our Christmas tree with coloured lights. Light pollution has two other dangerous effects on the environment, too. It affects the ecosystems of nocturnal wild animals and is a huge waste of energy. It also has a negative effect on our health. An increase in nocturnal light alters the production of melatonin, which leads to sleep pattern disturbance and an increase in headaches and anxiety. It also affects our Circadian cycles and seems to be a potential risk factor in the triggering of breast cancer and obesity. Considering, then, the impact on the environment, the economic waste and the health risks involved, one cannot help wondering if the time has not come to begin celebrating this period in a greener and less sparkling way. Especially as green is such an iconic Christmas colour.