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A Brief History of Christmas Tree Lights

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Like Bert and Ernie or pork and fennel, Christmas trees and lights were made for each other. But how did stringing up a few hundred twinkling lights on a pine tree become a normal part of Christmas merrymaking?

Make Like a Tree and Get in the House

Well, it all started with the pagans. The ritual use of evergreens and lights during winter celebrations predates Christianity. Their symbolism (life in the dead of winter) must not have been lost on Christians, who adopted the pagan Yule log and began bringing evergreen trees into their homes during the winter. In the 17th century, the Germans combined the two elements and the tradition of illuminating the Christmas tree with candles began (legend has it that Martin Luther, inspired by a starry Christmas Eve sky, lit the first tree a century earlier, but the first documented references to a lit tree come from 1660).

The Christmas tree came to the United States in the early 19th century with the German-speaking Moravians (who often practiced the "putzing" or "dressing up" of the tree with decorative ornaments), who settled in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. One of the earliest documented references to a Christmas tree in America comes from a 1821 journal entry by Matthew Zahm of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who saw his friends "on the hill at Kendrick's saw mill" looking for a good tree to put in the living room.

Christmas trees quickly spread from German enclaves and became an established part of American Christmas celebrations.

In 1832, Harvard University professor Charles Follen, inspired by German tradition, may have been the first American to illuminate a Christmas tree when he decorated his with candles. In 1851, Mark Carr opened the first Christmas tree retail operation, cutting down trees in the Catskill Mountains and selling them at New York City's Washington Market. In 1856, the illuminated Christmas tree hit the big time when President Franklin Pierce had the White House tree decorated with candles.

The candle-lit Christmas tree, to no one's surprise, had some problems. For one, it was hard to keep the candles attached to the branches. People tried pinning the candle down with a needle, tying the candle to the branch with wire or string, and using melted wax as an adhesive. None of these methods worked very well. Fortunately, a breakthrough came in the form of Frederick Artz's 1878 invention: a clip-on candleholder. But even if you got the candles to stay, there was the little manner of having a very large, vary flammable tree in your living room. People usually kept the candles lit for no longer than 30 minutes at a time, kept an eye on the tree the whole time, and always had a bucket of sand or water at the ready in case of fire. Of course, accidents still happened. Eventually, a group of insurance companies collectively refused to pay for fires started by Christmas trees and began putting a "knowing risks" clause in their policies.

The Christmas Tree, Like Bob Dylan, Goes Electric

1st-xmas-treeOn December 22, 1882, Edward Johnson—a friend of Thomas Edison and vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company—displayed the first electrically illuminated Christmas tree in the parlor of his New York City home (pictured). The tree, powered by an Edison generator (Johnson lived in the first section of the city to be wired for electricity), featured eighty hand-wired red, white and blue light bulbs—which, according to a reporter from the Detroit Post and Tribune, were each as "large as an English walnut"—and sat on a motorized box that rotated it "some six times a minute."Â  Over the next few years, Johnson and Edison experimented with and improved upon Johnson's electric tree lights. In 1890, they took them to the market place, publishing a 28-page brochure about "Edison miniature lamps for Christmas trees" and placing ads for the product in popular magazines.

Electric tree lights, like the illuminated tree before them, got national attention when they made their debut at the White House on Grover Cleveland's 1895 Christmas tree. Most people who weren't the President of the United States would have to wait for their own electric tree lights, however. Public distribution of electricity was spotty, and most people living outside major cities would have had to supply their own electric power from a household generator. Lighting an average-sized tree would have also been prohibitively expensive for most people. The generator, the fee for the wireman who would need to hand-wire all the lights on the tree, and the wire and lights themselves would usually cost upwards of $300.

A Chicken in Every Pot and an Electric Christmas Tree in Every Living Room

In 1903, a breakthrough in electric lighting technology came when GE offered the first pre-wired string of tree lights to the public. The string of lights, called a "festoon," consisted of a string of eight pre-wired porcelain sockets, eight Edison miniature colored glass lamps, and a screw-in plug for a wall socket (the length of wire all this was attached to was not made by GE, but the American Eveready Company, which would go on to become part of the National Carbon Company and give the world the long-lasting alkaline battery).

Festoons were still pretty expensive at $12 per string (slightly less than an average week's wages for many people), but that problem would be solved when GE attempted to patent their Christmas lighting festoon. The patent application was refused, because the product was based on knowledge that an ordinary wireman possessed. With the market wide open, other companies and inventors began to produce their own tree light sets and the American Christmas light industry was born.

One early Christmas light entrepreneur was teenager Albert Sadacca, who convinced his parents to use the material from their novelty lighting business to produce affordable tree light sets. He later started a trade organization called the National Outfit Manufacturers Association (NOMA). NOMA eventually became the NOMA Electric Co. and dominated the Christmas light market until the 1960s, when competition from foreign imports drove them into bankruptcy and out of the lighting business.

This article originally appeared last December.

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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.

1. PANGANGALULUWA // THE PHILIPPINES

Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.
Suman

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.

2. PÃO-POR-DEUS // PORTUGAL

Raw dough.
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Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.

3. HALLOWEEN APPLES // WESTERN CANADA

Kids trick-or-treating.
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If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.

4. ST. MARTIN'S DAY // THE NETHERLANDS

The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.

5. A PENNY FOR THE GUY // THE UK

Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.

6. TRICKS FOR TREATS // ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Kids knocking on a door in costume.
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If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.

7. ME DA PARA MI CALAVERITA // MEXICO

Sugar skulls with decoration.
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While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.

8. HALLOWEEN! // QUEBEC, CANADA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
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Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.

9. SWEET OR SOUR // GERMANY

Little girl trick-or-treating.
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Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.

10. TRIQUI, TRIQUI HALLOWEEN // COLOMBIA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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