Christmas Tradition – Lights

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Inspired by his European childhood of white Christmases and candle lights, a trip to Taree over 15 years ago sealed a passion for Christmas decorating that has delighted locals for many years. Focus talks with Horrie and Roma Hunt and their neighbour Geoff about the legendary Christmas lights on the corner of Lake and Boundary Streets in Forster – and delves a little deeper into the history of the not so humble Christmas light.

> Horrie and Roma, you have been decorating your home with Christmas lights for over 15 years. What inspired you to get started?

We went to Taree to have a look at the Christmas decorations and were so impressed. I said to Roma, “You know the tradition of Christmas lights in Europe; we should carry it on here.” And after a couple of years, my good neighbour Geoff joined us with the decoration and continues to be a driving force each year.

> Horrie, what is your happiest memory from your years of decorating?

My biggest happiness is when parents come up to us and say, “See my boy, he is 15-years- old. He has been coming here since he was in a pram.”

It is a lot of work putting up the lights and testing them and maintaining them, but when you see the faces of the children, it makes it all worthwhile.

> Do we dare ask how many lights you have in your collections?

Quite a lot! We did count it at one stage, and it was over 3,000. But we gave up counting after that. We have one Christmas tree that has 840 lights on it, and at one time we had 3 of those trees.

> So, how long and what does it take to get your houses ready for Christmas, and whose job is it to untangle the lights?

Roma: His!

Horrie: Mine. We have a system where we wrap them up carefully at the end of the year, and they go back in the boxes.

Geoff: Sometimes I cheat and just buy a new box!

It takes thousands of lights, at least 38 power boards and thousands of wires.

We added 2 more phases into the house to manage the power. Extra power points in the garage and under the house. You have to be very organised to check all the lights.

At the height of our decorating years, it took at least 6 to 8 weekends to put up all the lights, and the last week is always frantic.

But it only takes one full day to take them all down!

> Horrie, at 83 you are not as sprightly as you once were. Is an era coming to a close?

It will be a few years yet; you have no idea the number of lights we still have in cupboards.

Geoff: I’ll only be doing it until my lights run out too; but then again, I did just buy 3 new boxes.

Roma: Horrie would like to see it continue; he gets very sentimental. If he could he would love to have a white Christmas for the kids.

> Perhaps you could get a snow machine?

Now there’s a good idea!

> Thank you all.

A brief history of Christmas lights

The history of Christmas lights actually goes back very far into the past, to the early Christians lighting candles in windows to show a house of worship.

In the 17th century, Christmas trees were covered in very carefully watched candles, which would only stay lit for a few minutes at a time as families stood vigilantly by with buckets of water!

By 1880 Thomas Edison had invented incandescent lights; however, it was an associate of Edison in 1882, Edward Hibberd Johnson, who is known as the father of Christmas lights. He hand wired 80 red, white, and blue incandescent lamps about the size of a pinball to a pine tree. He displayed this new invention in his parlor on 22 December 1882, which made that night the opening night for electric Christmas tree lighting.

A reporter for the Detroit Post and Tribune wrote a review of the light display,  which read:

“There, at the rear of the beautiful parlors, was a large Christmas tree presenting a most picturesque and uncanny aspect … There were eighty lights in all, encased in these dainty glass eggs … As the tree turned, the colors alternated … The result was a continuous twinkling of dancing colors … I need not tell you that the scintillating evergreen was a pretty sight – one can hardly imagine anything prettier … “

Early Christmas lights weren’t cheap. In the 1900s, a string of electric lights in today’s money cost around $300, and many advertisements suggested renting lights for holiday displays.

After World War II, bubble lamps hit the market and are considered the first great mass-produced tacky Christmas decoration, along with the aluminium Christmas tree and colour wheel spotlights, that would illuminate the tree from underneath.

Once Christmas lights were weatherproofed for outdoor use, it was only a matter of time before they were stapled to every square inch of house, garden and anything else that could be reached with an extension cord!

The early ‘90s saw increasingly elaborate Christmas lights on display, and driving around between 8 and 10pm to look at the lights has become popular family entertainment. In some areas there is fierce competition for the best decorated house; in other areas it is seen as a co-operative effort, with residents priding themselves on their street or their neighbourhood.

So this year, as you are out and about marvelling at the creative vision of Christmas lights across our region, spare a thought for the hard work put in by the dedicated enthusiasts, and don’t forget to smile and say Merry Christmas!

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