Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Elephant No. 79: Christmas Lights

When my husband and I were decorating our Christmas tree a few days ago, we came across a set of lights that wasn't as advertised. Rather than the five colours it showed on the box, the set had only three colours, and thus didn't quite fit into my husband's tree-illumination plans. It did, however, have potential for an elephant made of Christmas lights.

Christmas trees were originally lit with small candles: a practice that dates back to the middle of the seventeenth century. The tradition took nearly two centuries to become firmly established in Germany, then spread to Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. The Christmas candles were either stuck to the tree with melted wax, or attached with pins.

Candleholders were first used for Christmas candles around 1890. By in the early years of the twentieth century, glass balls and small lantern glasses were being used to contain the candles.

Illuminated Christmas trees became an established tradition in Great Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria. As early as 1832, 13-year-old Princess Victoria wrote in her diary that there had been two large tables set up at dinner that Christmas Eve, each featuring a tree festooned with sugar ornaments and lights, with presents placed around the base of each tree.

From Britain, the tradition of lighted Christmas trees spread to North America and Australia. Until the development of cheap electricity in the middle of the nineteenth century, candles were still used, however—and in some cultures remain a Christmas tradition to this day.

In the United Kingdom, electric Christmas lights are called "fairy lights". Interestingly, the name comes from a November 25, 1882 production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Iolanthe at London's Savoy Theatre—coincidentally the first building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity. For that production, Savoy owner Richard D'Oyly Carte had the operetta's fairies decked out in miniature lights. Miniature Christmas lights have been called fairy lights in Britain ever since.

The first Christmas tree to be electrically illuminated was created by a man named Edward Johnson. While Vice-President of the Edison Electric Light Company, Johnson had Christmas tree lights made especially for him. According to a Wikipedia entry, "He proudly displayed his Christmas tree, which was hand-wired with 80 red, white and blue electric incandescent light bulbs the size of walnuts, on December 22, 1882 at his home on Fifth Avenue in New York City." Although the New York press dismissed the story, seeing it as a publicity stunt, a Detroit reporter published it, and Johnson became known as the "Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights". Although the original Christmas tree lights were carbon-filament bulbs, over the past century Christmas lights have been incandescent, neon, fluorescent, and LEDs.

In 1895, U.S. President Grover Cleveland sponsored the first electrically lit Christmas tree at the White House. The first strings of commercial Christmas tree lights were produced by the General Electric Company of New Jersey in multiples of eight, with each socket taking a two-candela (the light of approximately two candles) bulb. By 1900, retailers had started placing Christmas lights behind their shop windows. Christmas lights—and the electricity that powered them—were still too expensive for most people at this time, and it would take about thirty years before electric lights widely replaced Christmas candles on trees.

Christmas tree bubble lights, ca. 1947.
Source: http://www.jimonlight.com/2009/11/30/jimonlight-coms-guide-to-

It took some time for outdoor electrical illumination to take hold. Even the famous tree at New York's Rockefeller Center, although lit from 1931 on, did not have electric bulbs until 1956. This was partially due to the lack of technology that safely sealed the bulbs and wiring from the effects of damp and cold, and also to a simple lack of established tradition.

Since the late 1950s, outdoor Christmas illuminations have become common, culminating in extravagant computer-controlled displays such as this.

For today's elephant, I was hoping for a warmer day, but better today when it's cold, than tomorrow when we're supposed to have freezing rain. These are indoor lights, after all, and I'd rather freeze my fingers than get electrocuted.

The set says it has 140 lights, but the length of the strand is what's important in this case. At 12.3 metres (40 feet, four inches), I figure it should be long enough for the area I had to work with.

I decided to strap the string of lights to the outside of our house by weaving twist ties through the ivy branches on one of the side walls. This is the same wall I used for my green wall elephant mural a couple of months ago.

Knowing that I was going to have to take this down in the dark, I used white twist ties, attaching the string of lights to the ivy at various intervals.

I worked my way from the bottom of the trunk, up the wall to the top of the head, sometimes simply looping the wire over a bit of twig.

After I reached the top, I did the ear, then came back around the bottom. I finished by taking the last section of lights up past my starting point to make the vertical part of the trunk.

It only took me about forty-five minutes from start to finish, including getting a ladder, setting up the latter, and moving the ladder a few times. But it was quite cold today, so my fingers were miserable. The final effect was pretty, though. Too bad I had to take it down.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Over the centuries, many things have been written about elephants. Sometimes these accounts ascribe human emotions and motives to elephants; at other times, the descriptions are fanciful or even bizarre. This rather sweet account comes from the Aberdeen Bestiary, ca. 1200 A.D.:
"Whatever elephants wrap their trunks around, they break; whatever they trample underfoot is crushed to death as if by the fall of a great ruin. They never fight over female elephants, for they know nothing of adultery. They possess the quality of mercy. If by chance they see a man wandering in the desert, they offer to lead him to familiar paths. Or if they encounter herds of cattle huddled together, they make their way carefully and peaceably lest their tusks kill any animal in their way. If by chance they fight in battle, they have no mean [intent to] the wounded. For they take the exhausted and the injured back into their midst."

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund  
World Society for the Protection of Animals

Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation

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