We tend to think of Christmas-season traditions as ancient, but most of them are rather recent, born in the 19th century. “A Visit From St. Nicholas” was published in 1823, and “A Christmas Carol” in 1843. Thomas Nast’s drawings of jolly Santa Claus debuted in 1862. Meanwhile, in 1841, Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, had introduced Britain to the Teutonic tannenbaum—the Christmas tree—and the idea spread. In the States, President Franklin Pierce put one up at the White House in 1856, and by the 1870s fresh-cut trees were being sold at Washington Square Park, and pretty ornaments at Macy’s.
But what really made a tree a Christmas tree were the candles, and while flickering flames were festive, they were also a fire hazard.
In 1882, in a townhouse at 136 East 36th Street in New York City, Edward Hibberd Johnson had an idea that would make him the unsung set decorator of a zillion holiday snapshots. Fronted by a luxurious mustache, this loyal lieutenant to Thomas Edison was the embodiment of his era and saw an opportunity from over at the Edison shop.
Setting up a tree by the street-side window of his parlor, Johnson hand-wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs and strung them together around it, and placed the trunk on a revolving pedestal, all powered by a generator. Then he called a reporter. “At the rear of the beautiful parlors, was a large Christmas tree presenting a most picturesque and uncanny aspect,” wrote W.A. Croffut, a veteran writer for the Detroit Post and Tribune. “It was brilliantly lighted with…eighty lights in all encased in these dainty glass eggs, and about equally divided between white, red and blue….One can hardly imagine anything prettier.” The lights drew a crowd as passers-by stopped to peer at the glowing marvel. Johnson turned his stunt into a tradition; he also pioneered the practice of doing more each year: An 1884 New York Times article counted 120 bulbs on his dazzling tree.
Johnson’s lights were indeed ahead of their time—electricity was not yet routinely available—and they weren’t cheap. A string of 16 vaguely flame-shaped bulbs sitting in brass sockets the size of shot glasses sold for a pricey $12 (about $350 in today’s money) in 1900. But in 1894 President Cleveland put electric lights on the White House tree, and by 1914, a 16-foot string cost just $1.75. By the 1930s, colored bulbs and cones were everywhere.
Today an estimated 150 million light sets are sold in America each year, adding to the tangled millions stuffed into boxes each January. They light 80 million homes and consume 6 percent of the nation’s electrical load each December. And though the contagious joy of these lights has been co-opted orange at Halloween and red at Valentine’s Day, it all started with Johnson’s miracle on 36th Street.
We continue the tradition of lights on our trees. Lights on our homes and lights in our church. Yet our reason for light is not for publicity or to show off, but a reminder of the coming of the Light of the World – Jesus Christ.
Since at least the fourth century in Rome, Christians have celebrated the incarnation and nativity of Jesus Christ on December 25. There is more than one theory about the origin of this festival day. Some have suggested that it was established to replace the Roman feast of Natalis Solis Invicti (the “birthday of the unconquered sun”). Others believe that Jesus was conceived on March 25 (coinciding with the date of his crucifixion, as recorded by some witnesses in the early church); December 25 is exactly nine months later.
Regardless, the time between December 25 and January 6 (Epiphany) has become an occasion for the church to celebrate and give thanks for the arrival of God’s Word made flesh — the light of God that has come into the world, the light that even death could not extinguish. The Light came into the world.
Tonight, I want to read you a story by J. B. Phillips called “The Angels’ Point of View” [in New Testament Christianity, pp. 15-19]. The story is a meditation on our Christmas Eve Scripture passages from Isaiah and Luke:
And now for our story:
Once upon a time a very young angel was being shown round the splendors and glories of the universes by a senior and experienced angel. To tell the truth, the little angel was beginning to be tired and a little bored. He had been shown whirling galaxies and blazing suns… and to his mind there seemed to be an awful lot of it all. Finally he was shown the galaxy of which our planetary system is but a small part. As the two of them drew near to the star which we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis. It looked as dull as a dirty tennis ball to the little angel whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had seen.
‘I want you to watch that one particularly,’ said the senior angel, pointing with his finger.
‘Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me,’ said the little angel. ‘What’s special about that one?’
‘That,’ replied his senior solemnly, ‘is the Visited Planet.’
‘‘Visited’?’ said the little one. ‘You don’t mean visited by—’
‘Indeed I do. That ball, which I have no doubt looks to you small and insignificant and not perhaps overclean, has been visited by our Prince of Glory.’ At these words he bowed his head reverently…
The little angel’s face wrinkled in disgust.
‘Do you mean to tell me,’ he said, ‘that He stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?’
‘I do, and I don’t think He would like you to call them ‘creeping, crawling creatures’ in that tone of voice. For, strange as it may seem to us, He loves them. He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like Him.’
The little angel looked blank. Such a thought was almost beyond his comprehension.
‘Close your eyes for a moment,’ said the senior angel, ‘and we will go back in what they call Time.’
While the little angel’s eyes were closed and the two of them moved nearer to the spinning ball, it stopped its spinning, spun backward quite fast for a while, and then slowly resumed its usual rotation.
‘Now look!’ and as the little angel did as he was told, there appeared here and there on the dull surface of the globe little flashes of light, some merely momentary and some persisting for quite a time.
‘What am I seeing now?’ queried the little angel.
‘You are watching this little world as it was some thousands of years ago,’ returned his companion. ‘Every flash and glow of light that you see is something of the Father’s knowledge and wisdom breaking into the minds and hearts of people who live upon the earth. Not many people, you see, can hear His Voice or understand what He says, even though He is speaking gently and quietly to them all the time.’
‘Why are they so blind and deaf and stupid?’ asked the junior angel rather crossly.
‘It is not for us to judge them. We who live in the Splendor have no idea what it is like to live in the dark… But watch, for in a moment you will see something truly wonderful.’
The Earth went on turning and circling round the sun, and then, quite suddenly, in the upper half of the globe there appeared a light, tiny, but so bright in its intensity that both angels hid their eyes.
‘I think I can guess,’ said the little angel in a low voice. ‘That was the Visit, wasn’t it?’
‘Yes, that was the Visit. The Light Himself went down there and lived among them… Open your eyes now; the dazzling light has gone. The Prince has returned to His Home of Light. But watch the Earth now.’
As they looked, in place of the dazzling light there was a bright glow which throbbed and pulsated. And then as the Earth turned many times, little points of light spread out. A few flickered and died, but for the most part the lights burned steadily, and as they continued to watch, in many parts of the globe there was a glow…
‘You see what is happening?’ asked the senior angel. ‘The bright glow is the company of loyal men and women He left behind, and with His help they spread the glow, and now lights begin to shine all over the Earth.’
‘Yes, yes,’ said the little angel impatiently. ‘But how does it end? Will the little lights join up with one another? Will it all be light, as it is in Heaven?’
His senior shook his head. ‘We simply do not know,’ he replied… ‘The end is not yet. But now I am sure you can see why this little ball is so important. He has visited it… ’
‘Yes, I see, though I don’t understand. I shall never forget that this is the Visited Planet… ’
We are people of the visited planet and people who walk in light:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
‘The bright glow is the company of loyal men and women He left behind, and with His help they spread the glow, and now lights begin to shine all over the Earth.’