The Lights of Christmas
If we’re lucky this will be the last Pandemic Holiday Season we experience in our lifetimes. It’s sure to be a quiet season for most of us this year, and in its own way a memorable one. This week, since we’re publishing on December 24th, we thought we’d share a few Christmas stories, including the history of Christmas tree lights, Queen Victoria, and the Christmas Train tradition. However you celebrate this holiday season, the team here at Trace wishes you and yours a happy and healthy new year.
The earliest Christmas trees as we know them are usually attributed to medieval German traditions in the 16th century. Pagans had been using fir trees in their winter solstice celebrations for thousands of years, but it was apparently the Germans who thought to add lights. Some even claim it was religious reformer Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) himself who first invented Christmas lights, when he attached candles to his family tree to emulate the twinkle of starlight he’d admired on the snow-laden boughs outside.
The German immigrants to Pennsylvania brought their lighted Christmas trees with them, first appearing in the 1830s. Initially they were seen by some Americans as pagan symbols, but they caught on once Queen Victoria was depicted with her family Christmas tree in 1848. In the sketch, the tree is hung with ornaments and nearly every bough holds a lighted candle, sitting on a small metal disc clipped to the branch.
The problem with candlelit Christmas trees was, of course, fire. Many families kept a bright red metal pail next to their tree and filled it with sand or water, in case of fire. The typical lighting of the tree was a brief event. As Myrtie Chadsworth recollected from her childhood in the early twentieth century:
Mother and Father 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 be allowed to burn for a precious few minutes, and all too soon it would be time to blow them out. As the youngest child, Father would pick her up for the honor of blowing out the last and uppermost candle.
This tradition began to change in 1882. Edward Hibben Johnson (1846 -1917) was an inventor and business partner with Thomas Edison. Edison first created a string of electric lights during the holiday season of 1880, which he strung outside his Menlo Park, New Jersey laboratory for the delight of passing trains. Two years later, Johnson had the idea to string them around his Christmas tree at home--which he placed on a rotating stand for even more drama. After a reporter noticed and reported on it, the public wanted them, too.
In 1895 Grover Cleveland became the first U.S. president to string his tree with electric lights and after that, the rest of the country followed. In the 20th century Christmas tree lights became relatively inexpensive and available to most families. As time went on, the Christmas light trend incorporated Thomas Edison’s original use, and ornate light shows became a new holiday tradition.
Today entire neighborhoods, such as Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, are famous for their massive public Christmas light displays. Department stores, zoos, and botanical gardens now feature holiday lighting displays, too. Christmas lights have come a long way since Johnson’s spinning tree; now we just need someone to invent a way to untangle them.
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A study by a group of scientists at the University of Copenhagen found that all blue-eyed people share a common ancestor, from 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.
The Christmas Train
When we think of Christmas and trains, it may evoke the excitement of a young boy as he sees the new train set that Santa has left for him under the tree on Christmas morning, or your grandmother’s treasured Christmas village, the one she painstakingly arranged every Christmas season of your childhood, with its snow-capped buildings, trees, and even a to-scale locomotive meandering through, or maybe they make you think of the movie or book that carry the title of Christmas Train. What may not occur to you are the actual steam-powered trains that drove the 19th-century westward expansion of America and how they relate to tracing your ancestors, but perhaps you should.
Since that Christmas Day in 1830, when the Best Friend of Charleston made its debut trip and later became the first regularly scheduled steam locomotive passenger train in the United States, trains have been integral to the American way of life and, therefore, part of the narrative for our ancestors. Firsts and developments, such as the inaugural six-mile trip of the Best Friend or the Act of Congress which created Amtrak in 1971, have emblazoned the headlines of newspapers across the country. Though not necessarily directly pertinent to a particular ancestor, these events, when included in written family histories, provide rich context to the times in which they lived.
Often trains played a more direct role in the lives of our ancestors. Historical newspapers are filled with stories of train-related accidents, ranging from derailments to amputations resulting from train hopping. Intermixed with the details of the accident, interesting biographical details can provide clues to other records, confirming or refuting ancestral information. As the stories were often printed across multiple publications or in multiple issues of the same newspaper, providing a variety of details that when compiled reveal even greater rewards. Sometimes these were syndicated stories, but other times they were each written by independent authors. Though the topic was the same, each writer may have chosen a different selection of the facts to include in their accounting of events.
Community and social news columns commonly told of the comings and goings of area citizens via trains. It would be extremely wise to not dismiss these seemingly trivial mentionings, as they often are rich in genealogically-relevant information. It was extremely common for these community columns to include information about not only the destination of a trip, but also who the citizen “took the train” to visit. Details such as these can provide clues as to where to look for additional records, confirm relationships and aid in determining where a “missing” family member may have moved.
When a vital record has been located for an ancestor, many researchers will make the mistake of believing that the answer has been found and research should cease. However, that is not the case. When creating these records the information was limited to the fields on a form, while the newspaper articles were not hindered by such limitations and may include a surprising amount of information that may not otherwise be found. These biographically-rich details can supplement information provided by official records and sometimes lead to breaking through a long-standing brick wall.
The advent of trains and newspapers allowed our ancestors to stay connected to one another and have left us a wealth of information that is just waiting to be found, reflected upon and retold. Happy sleuthing!
Learn about about the evolution of British Christmas traditions in our blog post, Christmas Past in England.
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The National Tree Lighting (https://thenationaltree.org/ : accessed 23 December 2020), “Celebrating 97 Years: An American Tradition.”
Smithsonian Magazine (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/ : accessed 23 December 2020), “Untangling the History of Christmas Lights.”
The Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/ : accessed 23 December 2020), “Who invented electric Christmas lights?.”
Old Christmas Tree Lights (https://oldchristmastreelights.com/ : accessed 23 December 2020), “The NOMA Story.”
Old Christmas Tree Lights (https://oldchristmastreelights.com/ : accessed 23 December 2020), “Christmas Tree Lights Before Electricity...”
Claremont Graduate University (https://www.cgu.edu/ : accessed 23 December 2020), “Student Research: The History of Christmas Lights.”
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