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The history and safety of holiday lights
by Metro Creative News Source · December 16th, 2016

Holiday celebrants employ holiday lights in various ways. Certain individuals may be content to hang lights on their Christmas trees and call their decorating complete. Others may get their holiday jollies by making sure each square inch of their home is covered in twinkling lights. Still, other people prefer the more subdued effect of lights framing one picture window of the house.

The tradition of Christmas lights stretches back to early modern Germany when people used candles to decorate Christmas trees in Christian homes. Those candles were harbingers of what would come when electric lights replaced gas and other open flame illuminating devices that were commonplace prior to the 20th century.

Thomas Edison, the inventor of the first successful practical light bulb, also created the first strand of electric lights that would be used in holiday decorating. By 1880, Edison had standard incandescent light bulbs well sorted out and desired a way to better advertise his invention, so he decided to make the most of the holiday season and put his light bulbs on display. According to a 2003 article in American Heritage magazine titled "The Wizard of Your Christmas Tree," Edison strung incandescent bulbs all around the compound of his Menlo Park, NJ, laboratory. Edison constructed an eight-mile underground wiring system in order to power this grand light display. Because the laboratory was situated along the railroad that passed between Manhattan and Philadelphia, thousands of people were able to see the display.

The concept of electric holiday lights took a bit of time to catch on. Edison's friend and associate Edward Johnson was tasked with stringing together colored lights in 1882 and placing them on an evergreen tree. Johnson hand-wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs. In 1895, President Grover Cleveland requested the White House family Christmas tree be illuminated by multi-colored electric light bulbs.

In 1903, when General Electric began to offer pre-assembled kits of holiday lights, stringed lights were reserved for the wealthy and electrically savvy. For example, in 1903 a single string of electric lights cost $12, or around $300 today.

It would take several more years before holiday lights became a national tradition. On Christmas Eve 1923, President Calvin Coolidge began the country's celebration of Christmas by lighting the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse located south of the White House with 3,000 electric lights.

Today, illuminated strands of lights have become a large part of holiday celebrations and have even been adopted for use during various year-round events.

Safety tips:

• Work with at least one partner. Never go it alone when stringing holiday lights. Make sure someone is there to hold the ladder steady as you climb up and down. Partnering up when stringing holiday lights allows decorators to use both of their hands to climb up ladders instead of using one of their hands to carry lights. Once they reach a point where it's safe to hang lights, they can then have a helper hand them the lights. If possible, work in groups of three so someone can hold the ladder steady at all times.

• Inspect lights before hanging them. Lights are not built to last forever, and over time holiday lights can suffer damage that has the potential to be dangerous. Wires can fray, and sockets can crack or break. Inspect lights and wires before hanging them, replacing any that pose a hazard. When replacing bulbs, be sure to replace them with bulbs of equal wattage.

• Use an extension cord of adequate length. Exterior holiday lights are often plugged into extension cords that extend to a shed or garage. Do not connect several extension cords to power holiday lights; instead, use just a single cord that's lengthy enough to reach the outlet. Connecting extension cords is a fire hazard. In addition, make sure the amperage of the decorations matches the amperage rating of the extension cord, which can be found on the product label or possibly on the manufacturer's website. Make sure the extension cord is not plugged into the power source while you are hanging the lights.

• Make sure lights do not pose a safety hazard inside. Some people string holiday lights indoors as well. Lights might be hung on Christmas trees or along hallways. Such lights and the cords connecting them to power sources should never pose safety hazards, so make sure they are not lying on the floor. Secure lights to the wall and never place them beneath furniture or rugs. Lights can overheat when placed beneath rugs, and lights that are not properly secured to a wall can pose certain dangers, including being potential tripping hazards.

• Hang the correct lights. When stringing lights, make sure you hang lights designated as exterior lights on the exterior of your home and those designated as interior lights inside your home. Hanging lights in the wrong place poses a fire hazard and creates additional safety concerns, so adhere to manufacturers' instructions when stringing lights.

Safety should reign supreme when stringing holiday lights around the house.
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