They're as much a part of the Christmas season as carols, fragrant pines and the joyous exchange of gifts between friends and families. In fact, Christmas lights have become such an integral part of seasonal traditions in North America that it's hard to envision a time when neither electricity nor colourful, sparkling Christmas lights existed. But it's been just over a century since electric lights were first used to decorate trees and barely seventy years since decorative outdoor Christmas lights gained popularity. On November 1, 2001, Canada Post will issue three Christmas stamps featuring Christmas lights: one domestic rate ($0.47), one US rate ($0.60), and one international rate ($1.05).
Decorating with light around the time of the winter solstice dates back to the days of paganism. During winter solstice observations, many early cultures used fire as a key element in their celebrations; bonfires, hearth fires, candles and lanterns all symbolized the warmth and light of the sun and were central to these celebrations. Ancient Romans would celebrate Saturnalia for a week in mid-December with feasting, revelry, gift-giving and the lighting of candles and fire.
THE TRADITION OF TRIMMING
The custom of trimming and lighting a Christmas tree likely has its origins in medieval Germany. Mystery plays involved a tree known as the Pardeisbaum (tree of Paradise), which symbolized the Garden of Eden. The practice eventually moved into homes as people would set up this type of tree and decorate it with cookies, dried fruit, and eventually, candles. Around the middle of the 17th century, trees were adorned with small candles; a custom which became firmly established in the 19th century in Germany. The custom gradually spread to Eastern and Northern Europe, and in 1841, Prince Albert of Saxony (Queen Victoria's husband) introduced the custom to England. Early candles were glued with wax or pinned to the ends of branches. Around 1890, candleholders with clips replaced these earlier methods. European immigrants carried the tradition across the Atlantic to North America, where it has seen almost universal adoption.
THE FIRST DECORATIVE ELECTRIC LIGHTS
In 1882, Edward H. Johnson, a colleague of Thomas Edison, used a string of 80 homemade small electric lights to illuminate a Christmas tree in his New York home. The tree was mounted on a rotating platform and each of the red, white, and blue light bulbs was wired individually and connected to a contact which enabled the lights to flash on and off. Around 1890, numerous small companies began producing strings of differently-coloured hand-blown Christmas lights with wooden sockets.
A FIRST FOR CANADIANS
One of the first electrically-lit Christmas trees in Canada was erected in Westmount, Quebec in 1896, and in 1900, some large stores used illuminated trees to attract customers. The custom spread quickly as more homes were wired for electricity; eventually the tradition was carried outdoors and the streets, trees and buildings in urban areas sparkled during the festive season.
Canadians have embraced the custom of decorating their Christmas trees and home exteriors with electric lights. Many communities across the country use colourful lights to decorate downtown areas; illuminating streets and store windows to attract attention and delight visitors. The more spectacular displays are promoted as tourist attractions and become the focus of special seasonal festivals - Niagara Falls and the National Capital Region are two brilliant examples.
CHRISTMAS LIGHTS ACROSS CANADA
In 1985, the National Capital Commission (NCC) of Ottawa launched Christmas Lights Across Canada, a nationwide, co-operative effort to illuminate the country with hundreds of thousands of brilliant and colourful lights each year. Provinces and territories are invited to simultaneously light their legislative buildings in a brilliant display that links Canada's capital cities. On Parliament Hill, spectacular Christmas trees highlight provincial and territorial involvement while promoting national pride, co-operation and unity.
The challenge facing designers 'Segun Olude, Carisa Romans and Robert L. Peters was that of portraying the 'feeling' of lights. Photography provided the solution, as its very essence is the presence and capture of light. Several photographers provided images of Christmas lights and nostalgic winter scenes, from which various elements and details were selected, scanned, and digitally re-combined. Through photographic montages, the magic and beauty of three distinctly Canadian winter wonderland scenes - a sleigh ride in an urban landscape, skating in the suburbs, and building a snowman in the country - are brought to life with the introduction of lights. The scenes and colours of all three stamps were specifically chosen to enhance the Christmas cards and packages which the stamps will grace. All three designs are available in panes of 25. The international rate and U.S. rate stamps are available in booklets of six stamps, and the domestic rate stamp is available in booklets of ten.