Making war with Christmas lights

YOU know what happened 125 years ago today?

Thomas Alva Edison (the man who gave us the electric light bulb) created the first strong of Christmas lights.

I looked it up. Google doesn’t say whether his wife made him climb on the roof, or whether he broke a femur in the process, but I doubt it. It would have been paltry by our standards.

He probably had half a dozen faintly glimmering lamps, each the size and weight of a goldfish bowl, festooned over the Christmas tree. And snapping the branches, no doubt.

The whole family probably marvelled at this phenomenon for hours. Not any more. If you want to impress anyone with Christmas lights in 2007 you need several thousand of them; they need to change colour, sing carols, and incorporate reindeer, sleigh, Santa Claus, jolly dwarfs and very, very occasionally, maybe even an angel, or a virgin and a baby.

I wonder if he had any idea what he was starting? He was probably a Christian. Most people were in 1888. He probably thought he was making the world a better place. He wasn’t to know that his invention (I nearly said ‘simple’ but there was nothing simple about the electric light bulb) would start neighbourhood wars.

In 1888 people were simply impressed. There was no sense of competition because no one else knew how to make light bulbs. Edison had the monopoly. But in 2007 things have changed. Everybody (or everybody in the western world, anyway) has the light bulb and Christmas lights have become a competition.

Cities have prizes for the house that has the best lights. ‘Best’ though, is a relative term. If there were prizes for Tasteful there might not be so many winners; if there were prizes for Faithfully Illuminating the Essential Values of Christmas — things like peace and goodwill — there’d be no winners.

It wasn’t so long ago that there were punch-ups on the Gold Coast because so many people were driving round the neighbourhood sightseeing the entries in the Christmas lights contest, blocking suburban roads, driving over lawns, knocking down post boxes, that tempers became a bit frayed.

So much for Christmas values.

I hear you groan: oh God, another old fart who wants to go back to the good old days.

Not true. I remember the good old days. We had candles on our tree when I was kid. We couldn’t afford Christmas lights, which back then required a small mortgage. We had real candles and I have to tell you that they were wonderful. They still haven’t invented a string of Christmas lights that can faithfully emulate the soft, enchanting, flickering light of a dozen candles on a tree.

Nor have they invented a string of lights that can accidentally ignite the dry lower branches and turn your tree, all the hanging chocolates, the decorations and the fairy doll at the top into a roaring inferno in the space of 1.5 seconds, which is what happened to us when I was five.

My mother — ever the quick thinker in a tight spot — threw my father’s drink over the flames in a bid to extinguish them before they took hold.

She had forgotten it was brandy.

We managed to rescue most of the presents, part of the house, and one side of the fairy doll’s face, but I don’t think my psyche ever recovered.

Christmas lights make me nervous. I am not alone. There are in the world plenty of people who have been welded to the national grid by a set of last year’s lights with worn leads or faulty transformers; and others who really have ended up in hospital because the sleigh ought to go just a little higher up the roof, dear.

But hey, it’s Christmas. Hospital visiting hours are very generous on Christmas Day; and you’ll get out of the washing up.

Personally, I like to think of Thomas and his family marvelling over their first string of lights. But I bet, even back then, Mrs Edison felt pretty smug about the edge it gave her over the Joneses next door.