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15 Merry-and-Bright Facts About Christmas Lights

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The Christmas tree may have German roots, but the twinkling lights adorning them each December are distinctly American. From Thomas Edison's ingenious marketing strategy to Carson Williams' viral "Wizards of Winter" display, here are some facts about fairy lights to keep you warm throughout the season.

1. THOMAS EDISON WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE FIRST CHRISTMAS LIGHT DISPLAY.

Determined to make good on his promise to electrify downtown Manhattan, Thomas Edison sought to draw attention to his incandescent light bulb during the 1880 Christmas season. The Wizard of Menlo Park, who was known for his PR savvy, laid eight miles of underground wire to power strings of lights around the outside of his New Jersey laboratory. Train commuters traveling between New York and Philadelphia were so amazed by the glowing fields that one reporter labeled Edison "the Enchanter" and described the spectacle as "a fairy-land of lights."

Just two years later in 1882, Edison set up a central power plant on Pearl Street in Manhattan. That holiday season, his friend and colleague Edward Johnson decorated the first Christmas tree with 80 blinking red, white, and blue electric lights. To add to the historic presentation, Johnson’s tree sat atop a revolving box that spun every 10 seconds. Documenting the amazing display, a reporter from the Detroit Post and Tribune wrote, "I need not tell you that the scintillating evergreen was a pretty sight—one can hardly imagine anything prettier … The tree was kept revolving by a little hidden crank below the floor which was turned by electricity. It was a superb exhibition."

2. GROVER CLEVELAND WAS THE FIRST PRESIDENT TO HAVE A CHRISTMAS TREE DECKED OUT IN ELECTRIC BULBS.

Benjamin Harrison was the first to have a Christmas tree in the White House in 1889, but it wasn’t until 1895—four years after the White House was wired with electricity—that Grover Cleveland requested the first family’s tree be adorned with hundreds of multi-colored bulbs. The 24th president is credited with warming the public to the idea of electric Christmas lights. At the time, many people mistrusted electricity and thought that dangerous vapors would seep into their homes through the lights and wires.

3. THEY WERE EXPENSIVE. (VERY EXPENSIVE.)

By 1900, it could cost as much as $300 (around $2000 today) to pay for the lights, a generator, and a wireman’s services to illuminate a Christmas tree with electric lights. A breakthrough came in 1903 when General Electric (created after another company merged with Edison’s factory) offered the first pre-wired, eight-socket strings of lights. When GE attempted to patent their Christmas “festoons,” their patent application was refused because the product was based on knowledge that ordinary electricians possessed. Once the market was open, other companies and inventors began to produce their own tree light sets, and the American Christmas light industry was born.

4. A 15-YEAR-OLD HELPED MAKE THEM POPULAR.

A candle-lit tree, c. 1900 // Library of Congress

Inspired by a tragic fire that was started by candles decorating a Christmas tree, then-teenager Albert Sadacca suggested adapting the novelty lighting his parents sold for Christmas trees. While only a hundred strings sold in the first year, once Sadacca thought to paint the bulbs red, green, and other colors, the business took off. Sadacca started the National Outfit Manufacturers Association, a trade group of several small companies that consolidated into the NOMA Electric Company in 1926. NOMA became the largest Christmas light company in the world until the mid-1960s.

5. EARLY LIGHTS WERE ELABORATE.

Many of the early figural light bulbs were blown from the molds that were also used to make glass ornaments, and were then painted by toy makers. The paint would often flake from the constant expansion and contraction of the glass (due to the heat generated as a byproduct of making light), so milk glass was typically used to make the flaking paint less noticeable.

6. LIGHTS WEREN'T SAFE FOR OUTDOOR USE UNTIL THE 1920s.

President Calvin Coolidge was responsible for the first National Christmas tree in 1923. The 48-foot tall balsam fir came from Coolidge’s home state of Vermont and was adorned with 2500 red, white, and green electric bulbs. But for most of the country, outdoor lights wouldn’t be widely available until 1927. To increase sales, General Electric and various distribution companies sponsored neighborhood “decorating with color-light” contests, a tradition that continues today.

7. THE WORLD RECORD FOR "MOST LIGHTS ON A RESIDENTIAL PROPERTY" BELONGS TO A FAMILY IN NEW YORK.

Move over, Clark Griswold. The Gay family strung 601,736 lights around their LaGrangeville, New York home last year to reclaim the Guinness World Record for the most lights on a residential property. Set to more than 200 songs, the installation took the 2014 crown with help from RITZ Crackers, who contributed a 200,000-light display.

8. A MAN IN CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA, HOLDS THE RECORD FOR "MOST LIGHTS ON AN ARTIFICIAL TREE."

Richards' 2014 Display via Getty

Fittingly known around town as the “Christmas Lights Man,” David Richards was awarded the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest display of Christmas lights on an artificial tree on November 27. The tree, located in Canberra, Australia’s city center, is made up of 518,838 individual lights, smashing Universal Studios Japan’s October 2015 record of 374,280 lights.

Richards is no stranger to impressive illumination displays. He also held the Guinness World Record title for the “largest image made of LED lights” and held the 2013 title for most lights on a residential property. The barrister and his wife Janean use their elaborate displays to raise money for local charities SIDS and Kids ACT, which provided support when they lost their baby in 2002. 

9. THE TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA CAN THANK AN OHIO ELECTRICAL ENGINEER FOR MAKING THEIR CHRISTMAS TUNES HOLIDAY STAPLES.

Carson Williams spent nearly two months programming 25,000 lights to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Wizards in Winter,” which he transmitted through a FM channel. The Mason, Ohio, display became one of YouTube's early viral videos in 2005 and has more than 11 million views today. “It just shocked everybody that it took on a life of its own,” TSO creator Paul O’Neill told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “When you go to Disney World or MGM, all the lights are all going off to Trans-Siberian Orchestra music.”

10. BLINKING LIGHTS RELY ON A SIMPLE THERMOSTAT.

Those red-tipped mini lights that enable a string to twinkle work through a simple design. When electricity heats a strip of metal in the bulb, it bends and breaks the circuit. As the metal cools, it bends back and reconnects the circuit to create an intermittent flashing effect. But more modern light displays use an integrated circuit.

11. SOME GROUPS ISSUE FINES FOR LIGHTS LEFT UP TOO LONG …

Residents of Aurora, Illinois face a fine of $50 if they do not take their lights down by February 25. 

12. … WHILE OTHERS BAN CERTAIN KINDS OF LIGHTS.

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Several homeowners associations across the country ban outdoor light displays, with one in Washington making news for threatening to sue a resident for an overly elaborate display.

13. HANGING OUTDOOR LIGHTS (AND OTHER DECORATIONS) CAN BE DANGEROUS.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), an estimated 13,000 people were treated in emergency rooms around the country for injuries connected to holiday lights, Christmas trees, ornaments, and other decorations last year. The most common injuries are falls, lacerations, and back strains.

14. FIRES ARE STILL A RISK.

While electric lights greatly reduced the risk of fire, the CPSC estimates that between the years of 2009 and 2011, fire departments responded to an average of 200 fires in which the Christmas tree was found to be the first item ignited. These incidents resulted in 10 deaths, 20 injuries, and $16 million in property loss. To prevent fires, make sure to water trees frequently, unplug lights when leaving home, and discard holiday light sets with damage such as exposed wires and broken sockets.

15. THEY GET RECYCLED IN CHINA.

Every year, over 20 million pounds of discarded holiday lights arrive in Shijiao, China (near Guangzhou), the Christmas tree light recycling capital of the world. There, bales of Christmas lights are pulverized, separated into brass, cooper, and plastic, and ultimately turned into everything from slippers to new gadgets. 

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25 Things to Look for While Watching the 24-Hour A Christmas Story Marathon
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You’ve probably seen A Christmas Story enough times that you never really need to watch it again. But watch it you will. And enjoy it, too. Even though you know every twist and turn it will take for our young hero Ralphie to finally get his hands on his much-desired Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle. (An item he repeats 28 times throughout the film’s 94-minute running time; you could make an eggnog drinking game out of that.) 

This Christmas, when you inevitably tune into catch at least one airing of Bob Clark’s holiday classic during TBS’ 24-hour marathon, we’ve got a way for you to watch A Christmas Story in a whole new light: by keeping your eyes—and ears—peeled for these 25 blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em gaffes, anachronisms, and other fun facts that make watching the classic film an entirely new experience. 

1. RALPHIE DOESN’T KNOW HOW TO SPELL “CHRISTMAS.”

At least it doesn’t appear that way when he gets his Christmas theme—or shall we call it a Chistmas theme—back from Mrs. Shields, who also didn’t notice that the “R” is missing from the word.

2. JEAN SHEPHERD MAKES AN ON-SCREEN APPEARANCE.

If the voice of the man who brusquely informs Ralphie and Randy that the line to sit on Santa’s lap begins about two miles further back than they had anticipated sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the voice of the narrator, a.k.a. Adult Ralphie, who also happens to be Jean Shepherd, the man upon whose short stories the film itself is based. The woman behind Shepherd is his wife, Leigh Brown.

3. BOB CLARK JOINS IN THE CAMEO FUN.

Not to be outdone, director Bob Clark pops up in front of the camera, too, as Ralphie’s neighbor, Swede. He’s the guy who seems awfully curious about how Ralphie’s dad managed to snag himself a leg lamp. When The Old Man Parker informs him that it’s a Major Award, Swede responds: “Shucks, I wouldn’t know that. It looks like a lamp."

4. RALPHIE’S DAD IS NEVER GIVEN A NAME.

Over the years, a gaggle of sharp-eared A Christmas Story fans have pointed out that in Bob Clark’s scene, Ralphie’s dad is given a name: Hal. This is because they believed that in the brief exchange between the two neighbors, Swede asks of the leg lamp, “Damn Hal, you say you won it?” But a quick confer with the film’s original screenplay confirms that Swede’s actual query is, “Damn, hell, you say you won it?”

5. SPEAKING OF THE LEG LAMP…

The continuity folks must have been taking a coffee break during the unveiling of the leg lamp. Watch closely as the amount of packing debris covering The Old Man’s back and head changes from shot to shot. In one shot, his back is covered in the stuff; cut back and there’s nothing there.

6. IS THE LEG LAMP REALLY A LAMP?

In addition to being stumped by the word “fragile,” The Old Man—and the rest of the family—is initially confused as to what the leg’s purpose is. Is it a statue? (“Yeah, statue!”) One can’t blame them, as there’s no electrical cord to be seen. It’s just a leg. Yet, once the lampshade is discovered, the Parker clan is magically able to plug that titillating little fixture right in. 

7. ONE FINAL THING ABOUT THE LEG LAMP…

After witnessing the moment that Ralphie explains would become “a family controversy for years”—the breaking of the leg lamp—Mrs. Parker balks at her husband’s accusation that she would be jealous of a plastic lamp. But just moments before the “accident” in question, we hear the sound of breaking glass. And lots of it. Plastic doesn’t sound (or break) like that.

8. IS IT TORONTO OR IS IT INDIANA?

Though the film is set in Hohman, Indiana—a fictionalized town based on Shepherd’s hometown of Hammond, Indiana—parts of the film were shot in Toronto. This becomes apparent in some of the outdoor scenes, such as when the family is shopping for a Christmas tree, as one of the Toronto Transit Commission’s signature red trolley cars zooms by.

9. BOLTS VERSUS NUTS.

We all remember Ralphie’s reaction when his attempt to help his father fix a flat tire goes terribly awry. But here’s a fun fact that only true motorheads would pick up on: In the scene, Ralphie’s dad implores him to hold the hubcap horizontally so that he can put the “nuts” in it. But the 1938 Oldsmobile that he’s driving actually uses removable bolts. A fact that Shepherd confirms in his narration of the scene when he recalls that, “For one brief moment I saw all the bolts silhouetted against the lights of the traffic—and then they were gone.” Oh, fudge!

10. SCOTT SCHWARTZ IS NOT SCHWARTZ. BUT HE IS.

Ralphie’s two best friends are Schwartz, played by R.D. Robb, and Flick, played by Scott Schwartz. As if this tale of two Schwartzes weren’t confusing enough, when Ralphie tells his mom that it’s Schwartz who taught him how to drop the F-bomb, Mrs. Parker immediately calls the boy’s mother. But the voice we hear of fictional Schwartz taking a whooping is actually the voice of Scott Schwartz. Got it?

11. SCHWARTZ’S WHEREABOUTS.

Immediately following his unceremonious (and totally false) ratting out of his buddy, Ralphie remembers how “three blocks away, Schwartz was getting his.” In the original story, that may have very well been the case. But the film’s production called for Schwartz’s home to be just a few doors down from Ralphie’s, as we see as the kids walk to school together. Not three blocks away.

12. RALPHIE’S NOT A VERY GOOD LISTENER.

Ralphie felt understandably ripped off when, after weeks of waiting for his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, the first message he decoded was simply an advertisement for Ovaltine. But he’s lucky he could decipher the message at all, because a few of the numbers that he wrote down don’t match the numbers that announcer Pierre Andre broadcast, most notably the last one; Pierre said 25, Ralphie wrote 11.

13. UPPERCASE OR LOWERCASE?

Perhaps it’s that very error above that made it necessary for Ralphie to decode Annie’s message on at least two pieces of paper. How do we know that? Check out the difference in the “E” in the word “Be.” In the earlier shot, it’s an uppercase E; in the final message, the letter is lowercase. We’re on to you, Ralphie. 

14. FOR A SPORTS FAN, OLD MAN PARKER DOESN’T KNOW SPORTS.

Though the exact year of A Christmas Story’s setting is never stated, many of its context clues—including the makes and models of the cars we see and the popularity of The Wizard of Oz and Little Orphan Annie—put its year around 1939 or 1940. Yet in the beginning of the film, Mr. Parker becomes irate after reading in the paper that the White Sox “traded Bullfrog.” But the White Sox never traded Bill “Bullfrog” Dietrich, though they did release him on September 18, 1946, which would make this comment six years premature. He also refers to the Chicago Bears as the “Terror of the Midway,” when in fact their nickname is “Monsters of the Midway.”

15. THE CASE OF THE MYSTERIOUS LEVERS.

Old Man Parker seems to have a lot of non-human enemies—his car, the Bumpus hounds, and a seemingly possessed furnace among them. In one scene, The Old Man yells upstairs for someone to open the damper, which Mom does rather reluctantly. But watch closely when the camera cuts back to the levers, which are in the opposite position as Mom set them just seconds earlier.

16. DIVERSITY AS AN ANACHRONISM.

By the time A Christmas Story was released in 1983, racial segregation in Indiana public schools was a thing 34 years in the past. But if Ralphie’s story takes place any time before 1949, he would not have had any African American classmates, as he does in the film.

17. THE ROTATING BANANA.

Hoping to score some extra points with his teacher, Ralphie presents Mrs. Shields with the world’s largest fruit basket. It’s so large, in fact, that its individual pieces of fruit seem to have a mind of their own. Watch the way the banana shifts position each time the camera cuts back to Ralphie.

18. A DRAWER FULL OF UNIMAGINABLE MISCHIEF.

Ralphie and his classmates are a troublemaking lot. And when they decide to launch a classroom-wide prank in which they’re all wearing a set of false teeth, Mrs. Shields is well-prepared. She’s got a drawer full of pranks past, including a pair of chattering teeth … a gag gift that wasn’t actually invented until 1949.

19. SPEAKING OF TOOTHY ANACHRONISMS…

In his attempts to make Ralphie’s life a living hell, we get an up-close view of the braces worn by Scut the bully. They’re the kind that are directly bonded to the front of his teeth, a process that wasn’t invented until the 1970s. Until then, metal braces were wrapped around the teeth.

20. THREE-BARREL HINGED GLASSES WEREN’T A THING EITHER.

After nearly shooting his eye out on Christmas morning, Ralphie steps on his own glasses, revealing them to use a three-barrel hinge connector, which would not have been possible until the 1980s.

21. RALPHIE SHOOTS THREE TIMES, HITS FOUR.

When Ralphie is forced to defend his family against the rascally Black Bart (in his own imagination), he shoots three bad guys before his nemesis Bart escapes. But when the pile of bad guys is shown with their eyes X’ed out, there are four of them.

22. A VERY BING CHRISTMAS.

On Christmas morning, the Parkers kick back with that most classic of Christmas albums—Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas—in the background. As cherished a tradition as that may be, the album wasn’t released until 1945.

23. A BOWLING BALL FOR CHRISTMAS.

Old Man Parker is thrilled when his wife gifts him with a shiny new blue bowling ball for Christmas. There’s just one problem: colored bowling balls weren’t introduced until the 1960s. 

24. MELINDA DILLION GETS TOP BILLING.

Getting top billing must have been quite a thrill for actress Melinda Dillon… until the actual credits rolled and her name was spelled incorrectly!

25. FLASH GORDON GETS CREDIT, TOO.

Keep watching the end credits roll and you’ll see Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless among the names that scroll by. Though it never made the final cut, the credits for an additional fantasy sequence in which Ralphie and his trusty firearm help Flash Gordon face off against Ming remain.

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7 Christmas Foods of Yesteryear 
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Over the centuries, yuletide revelers have enjoyed far different culinary fare than we do today. Here are seven Christmas dishes of yesteryear that are sure to confuse—or tantalize—your taste buds.

1. PEACOCK

 
During the Medieval ages, some wealthy Europeans dined on peacock at Christmas dinner. The colorful, plumed bird was often baked into a pie, or roasted with its head and tail still intact. Adding to the flamboyant display, the peacock’s feathers were reattached (or the skinned bird was placed back inside its intact skin), and its tail feathers were fully fanned out.

Peacocks likely looked impressive on a banquet table, but the meat reportedly tasted terrible. “It was tough and coarse, and was criticized by physicians for being difficult to digest and for generating bad humors,” author Melitta Weiss Adamson writes in her book Food in Medieval Times. “To make the meat more easily digestible, it was recommended to hang the slaughtered bird overnight by its neck and weigh down the legs with stones.”

In addition to peacock, swans and geese were also on the Christmas menu. But by the 1520s, another roast delicacy—turkey—had been introduced to Great Britain. Explorer William Strickland is credited with bringing the turkey from the New World to England, and King Henry VIII was reportedly one of the first people to enjoy the new bird for Christmas dinner. Edward VII is said to have made the meal trendy.

2. BOAR'S HEAD

An illustration by St. J. Gilbert of a man holding a boar's head on a platter that was published in a Christmas supplement to the Illustrated London News in 1855. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 
In Medieval and Tudor England, wealthy parties celebrated Christmas by feasting on boar's head. The boar's head "formed the centrepiece of the Christmas Day meal," writes Alison Sim, author of Food and Feast in Tudor England (as quoted by the Food Timeline). "It was garnished with rosemary and bay and evidently was presented to the diners with some style, as told by the many boar's head carols which still exist."

One English Christmas carol, dating back to the 15th century, is actually called the "Boar's Head Carol." Its lyrics include lines like "The boar's head, as I understand/Is the rarest dish in all this land/Which thus bedecked with a gay garland/Let us servire cantico (serve with a song)." You can listen to a version here.

3. OYSTER STEW

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Today, oysters are a delicacy, but for early Americans who settled along the East Coast, they were a plentiful and nutritious food source. People enjoyed them in stuffing, roasts, and chowder—and 19th-century Irish-American immigrants used them to make a traditional Christmas Eve stew.

Most of these Irish transplants were Catholic, and their religious traditions required them to skip the meat on Christmas Eve. Instead, they enjoyed a soup made from dried ling cod—a common fish back in the Old Country—milk, butter, and pepper. But since Irish Americans couldn’t find dried ling cod in America, they substituted it with fresh, canned, pickled, or dried oysters.

4. MINCEMEAT PIES

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Historians trace mincemeat pie (also called mince pie) back to the 11th century, when Crusaders returned from faraway lands with spices. These spices worked as a preservative, so they were baked into pies containing finely chopped meat, dried fruits, and other ingredients.

Mincemeat pies eventually became associated with Christmas. Bakers added three spices to their pies—cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg—to represent the three gifts the Magi gave the baby Jesus. The pies were also baked into the shape of Jesus’s manger, and a model of the Christ Child was placed on top. People believed that eating a mincemeat pie on each of the 12 Days of Christmas (December 25 to January 6) would bring them good luck.

Over the centuries, the pies grew smaller and rounder, and their filling became less meat heavy, containing ingredients including suet, spices, and dried and brandied fruit. Today, some people still eat mincemeat pie in England—and on December 15 some British scientists fired a meat pie into space—but it’s not commonly seen on Christmas dinner tables in the U.S.

5. SUGARPLUMS

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 
As a child, you might have been inspired by one of ballet's most famous movements—The Nutcracker's “Dance Of The Sugarplum Fairy"—to wonder what a "sugarplum" actually is. The answer? A hard candy.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the term sugarplum was interchangeable with the words dragee or comfit. All referred to a hard, sugary layered candy. Often, the candy contained caraway, cardamom, fennel, ginger, cinnamon, walnut, aniseed, and almond cores. It took time, skill, and special equipment to make these sweets, so they were originally quite expensive and eaten only by wealthy people. Later, innovations in manufacturing made both sugarplums and other candies cheaper, and available for consumption by the masses.

In addition to getting a shout-out in The Nutcracker, sugarplums are also famously mentioned in Clement Clark Moore's anonymously published 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," better known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas" after its first line. But today, you're far less likely to see the candies mentioned in a ballet or poem; according to the Oxford English Dictionary, sugarplum is now obsolete.

6. POSSET

Long ago, the English enjoyed a predecessor to eggnog called posset, a kind of "wine custard" made from hot milk curdled with hot ale, wine, or sherry, and mixed with sugar and spices. The drink remained common from the Middle Ages until the early 19th century; over time, it disappeared from the culinary landscape.

Throughout the centuries, winter revelers enjoyed variations on the recipe, and eggs were eventually added to the mix. But since milk, eggs, and liquors like sherry and Madeira wine were either expensive or hard to come by, the drink’s popularity dwindled among the masses. Meanwhile, in America, early settlers created their own version of posset, which we today know as eggnog.

In the video above, you can watch Jonathan Townsend, host of YouTube living history channel Jas. Townsend and Son, cook his own version of posset, as adapted from an 18th-century cookbook. His posset has breadcrumbs.

7. ANIMAL CRACKERS

Ever wondered why boxes of Barnum's Animal Crackers have a string attached to them? In 1902, the National Biscuit Company (today known as Nabisco) introduced the circus-themed boxes filled with animal-shaped cookies as a seasonal promotion. Since people often adorned their Christmas trees with candy and/or treats, Barnum’s festive containers were hung on branches as decorations.

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