Wednesday, 18 December 2013

An Illuminating History...and Christmas Lights

The short days and long nights of December could be dark, dreary and dull were it not for Christmas lights. In my neighbourhood people who outwardly seem quite sane, go uncharacteristically mad and dress their houses with flashing reindeer, illuminated Santas and ropes of lights. Whilst researching my next book I discovered that attaching lights to houses is not a new phenomenon, but has its roots in the 18th century.
The first recorded mention of a building decorated with lights was on the occasion of George I’s birthday in 1716. The house in question was that of the royal physician, Hugh Chamberlen and he used 200 lamps to illuminate the fa├žade in tribute to his sovereign.
A house I walk past on my way home.
The idea seems to have caught on because during the first half of the 18th century courtiers began to light up their homes in honour of the king’s birthday. By the time George III came to the throne not just high-ranking people but the tradesmen linked to the crown adopted the habit and over time to light one’s house became a visible sign of the residents’ allegiance to King and country. 
Grand buildings were lit with lanterns arranged in complex designs attached to scaffolding whilst humbler abodes were content to show their solidarity with a few candles in the front room window.
“Being the King’s Birthday…In the evening there were the usual illuminations….the mob made all the coachmen and footmen which pass’d pull off their hats and cry ‘God save the King’…”
June 4th 1777
1801 -John Bull celebrates the blessings of peace.
Note the candles in the window.
It seems people enjoyed the spectacle of brightly lit buildings so much that they extended the celebration to the queen’s birthday and those of royal offspring, as well as other dates of national significance.
“…the affectionate love of the subject was testified to their Sovereign in every window…from palace of the peer to the garret of the weaver.”
In common with the party spirit many people drank too much and there was a tendency for drunks to attack homes where the owner had failed to display even a candle in the window.
“This token of national joy [house illuminations] is not regulated by law but the people…take the law into their own hands…and the citizens must illuminate to please or be content to have their windows broken; a violence which is winked at by the police…”
Illuminations -such as these at Vauxhall Gardens -
were a popular attraction at a time when there was no electricity.
One such time of celebration took place in the spring of 1789 to mark King George III’s recovery from severe mental illness.  On several occasions between March and May it was recorded in London that night turned to day and “every house was illuminated not only in the principal streets but in lanes, courts and alleyways.”
Contemporary newspaper reports give a flavour of the public mood.
“London might truly be said to have exhibited one continual blaze of exultation…The inhabitants seemed to vie with each other who should give the most beautiful and picturesque devices [illuminations] …and…testify their loyalty in the most conspicuous manner.”
Now I’m not suggesting Georgian illuminations are the direct ancestor of Christmas lights (actually that is a much duller story to do with the first Christmas trees) but the two things have an interesting parallel in that human nature never changes and in the 18th century, as now, people love to stare at pretty coloured lights.
Have you decorated your house? Please leave a comment.

With thanks to


  1. This is our First Christmas Take Two (our first Christmas was while living with in laws for me...his parents for we couldn't do as we liked) we've illuminated the outside of our little townhouse. Sadly we're the only ones doing so which invited thieves to steal a part of it.....our friends joke that they can see the glow from afar. LOL

    1. Oh that's so sad that someone stole from you.
      I'm sure that by decorating the house you spread some Christmas cheer.
      G x

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you, Lana - a very happy Christmas to you.
      G x

  3. Being alone in this season leaves not in the mood to decorate, besides my neighbors do enough for the whole neighborhood. Lol

    1. Christmas is a strange time of year, so much pressure to enjoy yourself and be merry - and yet so many people have to work or had a loss at this time which makes it very difficult. I hope you have a reasonable day, my friend.
      G x

  4. What a fascinating post! I had no idea. That's why I love studying history. So many good tidbits of knowledge that connect us to the present. (And if you have cats, are they destroying your Christmas tree like mine did to my tree? LOL!)

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I hated the sort of history taught at school (dates and treaties) - but in social history I discovered a new love!
      As to the tree - I have a suspicion one of the cat's is going under it to pee...thank goodness for steam cleaners!
      Have a happy Christmas
      G x


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