It took three years from the invention of the light bulb in 1879 before someone invented electric Christmas tree lights. The first electrically lit tree was displayed in New York City in 1882 and began a custom that has grown to become a requisite part of celebrating the holiday.
Minneapolitans adopted the holiday-decorating potential of electricity as early as 1903, when a dentist named Henry Boos took the headlamps from his car and used them to illuminate the decorated evergreen in his yard at 26th & Elliott. The first citywide Christmas-lighting idea was suggested in 1914 by the Minneapolis Tribune: simply, to have every home place a candle in the window on Christmas Eve. The idea caught on, and clergy of many Christian faiths invited their congregations to participate. But as electricity was brought to more and more Minneapolis homes and the price of light strings dropped, Christmas-lighting ideas became increasingly elaborate.
Just before Christmas 1925, President Calvin Coolidge pressed a button in the White House. Through the amazing power of electricity, he illuminated Minneapolis’ municipal tree, a 50-foot-tall specimen set up in Gateway Park. The festivities at the scene included carols sung by the Campfire Girls, played by the Salvation Army band and broadcast live from the City Hall carillon. This so inspired Mayor George Leach and other civic leaders that Minneapolis’ first electrically lit citywide outdoor Christmas decorating contest was announced for 1926.
The city was divided into districts. Parks superintendent Theodore Wirth, Leach and a handful of others were made judges. It was all the idea of the Minneapolis Electrical League, which promoted the use of electricity, and the Civic and Commerce Association. They called the effort “The Brightest Christmas City.”
At first, the idea was pretty basic: Homeowners were encouraged to put up electrically lit Christmas trees in their yards. The Alice Ames Winter Demonstration House was professionally done up by the Electrical League and attracted significant attention. “Each home,” the ladies said, “should be a messenger of light.” Hundreds of homeowners participated.
By 1927, the Minneapolis Retailers Association could see how this could be a big thing for them, and elaborate decorations went up in the Downtown shopping districts. Seven miles of evergreen garlands trimmed with 25,000 colored electric lights were strung throughout Downtown. That year’s tree at Gateway Park was 75 feet tall. Ten thousand homes across the city were expected to be decorated with Christmas lights. Leach called it a remarkable civic asset and a story of civic pride.
In the following years, the Christmas lighting contest grew and the displays became more elaborate. By 1928, tree-lighting pioneer Boos had moved to 4848 W. Lake Harriet Parkway and had a mechanical Santa climbing down his chimney. Every year, Southwest Minneapolis had plenty of fine entries in the Christmas decorating contest, sometimes taking citywide honors. Minneapolis claimed the title of “Brightest Christmas City” and dared places like Chattanooga and Boston to try and take it away.
The national rivalry failed to generate a lot of attention, but the idea of Christmas-lighting contests spread. Many cities in Minnesota held contests, which were generally run by the local Junior Chambers of Commerce (the Jaycees). The Minneapolis Jaycees ran our local contest almost every year until 1970.
During the 44 years of the contest, the displays changed with the tastes of the eras and the available technology. For many years, winners often featured stand-up wooden tableaux of Santas and candles lit by floodlights. As outdoor lighting strings became more available, more buildings were outlined with lights. During World War II, patriotic themes were popular. Some winners bathed their homes in intricate red-white-and-blue lighting patterns or displayed Santa waving an American flag. In 1941, 10,000 homes participated. Blackouts were on everyone’s minds, but Minneapolis’ Christmas lights really did give the city hope during those hard weeks and months after Pearl Harbor. But the contest went dark during WWII, when conserving fuel was important, until the Minneapolis Jaycees reignited the Christmas-lighting tradition in 1945.
Over the decades, the donated prizes varied. Often they were electric appliances like toasters, radios or even television sets (“completely installed!” — meaning the antenna, too), or cash or gift certificates. But the prizes weren’t the most important thing. People competed year after year and their displays got larger and more intricate.
One of Southwest Minneapolis’ biggest winners was Simon Clark Ryan of 4550 Dupont Ave. S. He was a football star at West High and St. John’s, then became a salesman (cars, then life insurance) before investing in a two-story bowling alley at 50th & France. He was just the sort of guy you’d expect to have a fabulous, attractive Christmas display in his yard.
In 1948, he won the citywide competition, with Christmas trees, carol singers and a great banner proclaiming “Joy to the World.” Unfortunately, no color pictures survive of this dramatic display. It was in the old style, with wooden stand-ups and floodlights.
For all the evolution of Christmas lights through the years, from the miracle of safe electric lights to the whole city becoming “a messenger of light,” in many ways little has changed. We still decorate our green trees with reds and blues that stand out against the December white. We still drive around to see brightly lit homes. We still feel a little excited and amazed at the simple beauty of colorful lights on a dark night.
Karen Cooper wonders about your award-winning house. If your Southwest Minneapolis home appears in the Hennepin History Museum realty photo archives, you can ask her to write your house’s history.