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Lighting the darkness through the holidays

Driving through the Bridgeport area early on Friday evening, I found myself wondering about all the Christmas lights I saw.

What do colorful lights have to do with Jesus and the Nativity anyway?

I pondered this question as I drove along National Road. I thought that perhaps the lights were inspired by the concept that Jesus is a light to the world. Or, maybe, the lights were initially meant to mimic and represent the star of Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth.

As I passed home after home adorned in luminous colors, I thought that perhaps the explanation was much simpler than that. Maybe there wasn’t a religious or spiritual reason for all these lights.

Instead, I though, maybe we humans simply have a strong desire to light up our surroundings at the darkest time of the year. After all, it was only about 5:30 p.m. and already the sky was dark, prompting hundreds of residents to turn on their outdoor light displays.

I know that for me, personally, the short days of December make it hard to be motivated. The early darkness makes me feel that I would prefer to curl up someplace warm, rather than going out and attending to my daily affairs.

Of course I still report to work and run my necessary errands, but I believe I do so with a good bit less enthusiasm than I have at other times of the year.

Curiosity about the matter got the better of me, so I did a little research on the topic. I’ll share some of that information with you here today.

According to several different traditions, holiday lighting dates back at least to the 17th century, in northern Europe. Several sources say early modern German Christians began decorating their homes with evergreen trees lighted with candles, borrowing from the pagan yule traditions that celebrated the return of light as the days grow longer after the winter solstice. Evergreens represented renewal and continued life in dark times.

It was not until the early 20th century, though, that Christmas trees illuminated with electric lights became popular in European and American homes.

According to The Smithsonian Institute, Edward H. Johnson created the first electrically lighted Christmas tree. Vice president of the Edison Electric Light Co., he displayed a Christmas tree illuminated with 80 red, white and blue electric incandescent light bulbs about the size of walnuts on in December 1882 in New York City.

A Detroit newspaper reported the story, spurring interest in the concept.

In 1895, under President Grover Cleveland, the White House had its first electrically lighted Christmas tree. Around that time, General Electric Co. began producing the first commercially available electric Christmas lights.

Businesses then began stringing Christmas lights in their windows. At that point, they could only be displayed indoors.

But in San Diego in 1904, Appleton, Wisconsin in 1909, and New York City in 1912, instances of Christmas lights being used outdoors were recorded. Various communities claim to have been the first to start that tradition.

Electric lights had definitely become detached from indoor trees by the mid-20th century in the United States.

By the 1960s, it had become popular to outline homes and streets with strings of electric lights. That custom spread throughout Christendom and around the globe by the end of the century.

Today, modern technology allows just about anybody who is willing to make the investment to create elaborate and fantastic indoor and outdoor holiday light displays. In addition to tourist attractions such as the annual Festival of Lights at Oglebay Park, many communities now have lighted, evening Christmas parades, and a large percentage of homeowners and residents decorate their abodes with colorful glowing lights. Often these displays include enormous, inflatable figures, resulting in fantastic scenes of holiday cheer.

In some cases, residential displays are erected with competition in mind. Many communities have annual holiday lighting contests that award prizes in multiple categories.

In other situations, friendly rivalries among neighbors lead to decorations getting bigger and brighter every year.

And in still other settings, some families adorn their homes in the same way year after year, perhaps carrying on traditions started by loved ones who are no longer with us here on Earth.

It seems that holiday lighting is all about individual expression, and there is no right or wrong when it comes to creating those displays. They can be large or small, or not there at all.

Whatever the reason and style that you choose for decorating your home as you do (or do not), there’s no reason to be so blinded by those lights that we lose sight of the spirit of the season.

Remember that, regardless of your faith, the world can always use more of the kindness and generosity that Jesus represents to Christians around the globe.

This holiday season, I urge your to strive to embody that spirit and be your own light to the world.

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