Turn on the lights and let the festivities begin

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What have Christmas lights and trivial pursuit got in common?

The twinkle in the eyes of a little one gazing with wonder at the lights on a Christmas tree is enough to bring out the child in any of us. There is something magical about lights that transcends age, culture, geography or any other boundary. Lights carry so much symbolism across cultures, faiths and geographies. For instance, they are not only an integral part of Christmas but also Hanukkah, Diwali or celebration of Kwanzaa to honor African heritage.

‘Back in the day’, as my daughter often refers to her parents’ anecdotes, the year-end holiday break was associated with family time, betting on a white Christmas, much eating and calories (still the case for most of us), presents, wrappers, animated Disney films to keep the kids entertained (also the guilty pleasure of many adults) and TV programs you watched but would never confess to. But for those of us of a certain genre, it was also about board games like Trivial Pursuit.

In case you’re wondering what all this has to do with lights, let me make that connection. I decided to dig into some trivia related to Christmas lights, to get us all in the mood for the festive season. Now if that isn’t a trivial pursuit – what is?

To start with, the advent of electricity and the invention of the light bulb transformed what was essentially a candle lighting tradition into a modern and glitzy affair. Thomas Edison created a string of light bulbs that he hung outside his Menlo Park Laboratory in 1880 but the first electric Christmas lights per se, were displayed in the home of Edward Johnson, a colleague of his, just three years after the light bulb was invented. Little did they realize that this would spark a sense of creativity that would someday lead to some of the most elaborate light displays.

But Christmas lights, like any other invention have had their tryst with destiny. In their earliest avatar they generated so much heat that they were as dangerous as the candles they replaced. They were also so expensive that folk could only afford to rent them. An electrically lit tree was even considered a status symbol in the early 1900s – understandable, when you think that a single strand of electric lights could cost as much as $300 in today’s money!

It was perhaps not a surprise that General Electric, the company that Edison helped establish in 1892, was the first to offer pre-wired Christmas light strings, but as it was unable to patent the string, many entered the fray. And outdoor Christmas lights, in essence were not introduced to the public until 1927 – more than four decades after the first electric tree lights were demonstrated. What was offered for sale as ‘safe for outdoor use’ before that was essentially small, dangerous and extremely impractical for the average family.

Before technical wisdom prevailed it was a common belief that Christmas light bulbs would burn longer when in an upright position with designers and decorators spending a lot of time to ensure the position of the lamps on the tree. From a technical viewpoint, the miniature lights that we are so familiar with even today were wired ‘in series’ which means that essentially, if one lamp blows, they all turn off. Today, each little bulb can have a built-in shunt device to prevent the string from going dark due to the failure of one or more lamps – and mind you, this shunt device can only work if the defunct lamp stays in its socket – removing it will still cause the string to switch off. You can also have bulbs wired in parallel, limited only by the amount of current that the two wires can carry. Light-Emitting Diode (LED) lights which have become popular in the last few years offer much more longevity and can be used for as many as 40 holiday seasons.

And just in case you thought you’d had your fill of trivia on this topic, here is a final salvo of Guinness records. Mexico City is attempting to displace Aracaju in Brazil as home to the world’s largest Christmas tree standing 362 feet (110.35 m) high, 115 feet (35m)  in diameter and weighing 330 tons. Should this be verified, it will exceed the Brazilian record, standing since 2007, by 24 cm.

The most lights lit simultaneously on a Christmas tree is 194,672 achieved in Belgium in 2010, comprising 350 garlands measuring 3m (9ft 10in) and fitted with around  570 lights each. And Santa should not struggle to spot the home of the Richards family in Canberra, Australia this Christmas either – given that the spot is illuminated with 331,038 fairy lights making it the record holder for the most Christmas lights on a residential property.

But as we marvel at those twinkling lights, it’s only fair to acknowledge the hand that rocks the cradle – the electricity that makes it possible. Spare a thought for the millions of people who are part of this sector – from equipment manufacturers and technology providers to utilities and service engineers around the world who bring us electricity.

It’s a privilege indeed to work for one of the world’s leading electrical engineering companies helping to bring reliable power to the people across the generation, transmission and distribution value chain – and then enabling it to be utilized efficiently by households, factories and other commercial users. But most importantly……helping to light up Christmas trees all over the world.

As we tackle everyday challenges, we sometimes lose the ability to appreciate the simple things in life and often take them for granted. This holiday season, let’s make a conscious effort to look at things through children’s eyes and marvel at the lights around us. And feel free to add any comments or trivia related to the topic that you come across – the more the merrier! Happy holidays and best wishes for the coming year.

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About the author

Harmeet Bawa

I am Global Head of Communications for ABB's Power Grids division based at the Group headquarters in Switzerland. I've served in the UK, Sweden, India and South-Asia Pacific region across a range of functions spanning business and market development, strategy and corporate planning, communications, sustainability and investor relations.
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