In 1904, the Hotel del Coronado – already considered a technological marvel – made history when it unveiled the world’s first electrically-lighted, outdoor, living Christmas tree. To accomplish this feat, electric lights (probably made on site) were strung from the hotel (at that time one of the largest buildings in America to have electricity) to a nearby Norfolk Island Pine.
Although indoor Christmas trees had become popularized in America by this time, electric Christmas lights were all but unheard of (candles were still commonplace), and no one had thought to light an outdoor tree.
Other areas didn’t follow suit until later, when the trend seemed to travel from the West Coast to the East Coast as a civic effort: Pasadena in 1909; New York and Boston in 1912; and Philadelphia in 1913.
The Del’s original 1904 Christmas tree, which was planted in 1888 (the year the hotel was built) was modest in size - a reported 50 feet tall. Today it is a stately 140 feet. Still, the idea of an outside Christmas tree – with lights! – captivated all who saw it.
The 1904 Christmas Tree
In a San Diego Union article published on Christmas day that year, the writer was poetic in her appreciation:
A Christmas tree in the open air! A Christmas tree in which birds found shelter for the night; a Christmas tree through which the sea breeze swept. A living, growing tree with its roots embracing Mother Earth and its great branches reaching toward the stars.
The specific process of outfitting the tree (whose branches “stand proudly forth”) with lights was detailed:
All day yesterday electricians were busy fitting it up and by night 250 lights of many colors gave beauty to the fine old pine. Lanterns, great and small, hung from its boughs.
The reporter continued to pay tribute to this wondrous sight:
All evening long, the radiant tree was the object of admiration. All evening long, two barefooted children, a boy and a girl, stood… and gazed upon the beaming tree. The little girl held her brother’s hand close within her own. They spoke scarcely a word. The imprint of their little feet is even yet visible in the rain-softened earth.
When the rain began to come down faster and faster, the children, casting a last long look upon the beauty of the night, sped away home to tell of the wonderful Christmas tree. Little wonder that all the children marveled, for their elders did the same, and now that the open-air Christmas tree has been introduced, it is likely that another Christmas eve will find many California gardens aglow with light scattered from living foliage.
According to the newspaper, the tree was lighted every night from 7 – 10 p.m., starting on Christmas Eve and continuing through December 31st. This, in itself, was impressive given the fact that indoor Christmas trees were usually only illuminated two or three times during the entire holiday season and only for very short periods of time (candle flames had to be watched closely, with buckets of sand and water always nearby). Apparently, the public’s fascination with The Del’s Christmas tree was responsible for the tree’s extended performance. From the December 28, 1904 San Diego Union:
So much interest [was aroused] in the outdoor Christmas tree with its many electric decorations as to have it illuminated each evening for the rest of the year.
As a footnote, the newspaper added that “several professional photographers were over last night.”
Later Years at The Del
Follow-up San Diego Union newspaper reports recorded the ever-enhanced hotel Christmas tree:
1909: “A large tree ablaze with lights and glittering ornaments.”
1913: “This year it will be lighted with colored electric lights. Every year the tree is a trifle taller and consequently each year the wiring has to be a little longer. A large star or light will grace the top of the tree while hundreds of small lights will gleam from its many branches.”
1920: “For many years, the immense tree, roped with numberless electric light globes of red, blue, green and yellow, has been lighted Christmas eve, the great star in electric globes at the topmost point sending out the joyful greetings of Yuletide blessings. The tree will remain lighted every evening until after the New Year and can be seen for many miles around.”
1954 (the 50th anniversary celebration): “The tree now towers at 62 feet.”
And, in 1912, Coronado’s Strand newspaper reported:
‘The Out-of-Door Christmas Tree’ will shed its multi-colored rays each night throughout the Christmas season. The tree is a work of electrical art, and the idea is original at Coronado.
Tree-lighting continued at The Del for many years, except during World War II when blackout laws were in effect. The long-running tradition was discontinued entirely during the energy crisis of the 1970s, ultimately replaced with the lighting of a magnificent lobby tree (a Ballroom Christmas tree also dates back to The Del’s earliest days).
American Christmas Tree History
Early 1880s: Christmas trees were such a rarity that they were sometimes put on display with tickets sold to view them (often as a church fundraiser).
* In Germany (where Christmas trees originated) and England (where
Christmas trees proliferated), trees tended to be tabletop size. Americans popularized the idea of room-size Christmas trees.
* A Victorian rule of thumb recommended thirty candles for every foot of tree; Christmas “lanterns” were also available as were miniature oil lamps.
* Christmas trees were usually put up on Christmas Eve, after children were asleep (children were brought up to believe that parents supplied the decorations, but Santa provided the tree and did all the work himself).
c. 1880: The first Christmas tree stands were patented.
1882: Electric Christmas lights were invented by Edward Johnson, a partner of Thomas Edison. Johnson, who resided in New York in the first square mile of the first city to have electricity, illuminated his own tree that year.
1889: President Benjamin Harrison, who visited the Hotel del Coronado in 1891, had the first White House Christmas tree in the Oval Office.
1892: The first electrically-lighted Christmas tree was featured at the White House during President Cleveland’s tenure.
1900: Only one-fifth of American families had their own Christmas trees (although there were oftentimes community trees to enjoy).
1901: Even so, Christmas trees had grown in popularity to the point that President Theodore Roosevelt worried about the country’s ability to maintain its forests. As a result, conservation-minded Roosevelt refused to have a Christmas tree in the White House (reportedly his son kept one in a closet that year). By 1902, Christmas tree farms had come into existence, and Roosevelt was willing to resume the White House Christmas tree tradition.
1901: General Electric printed an instruction booklet on how to hand-wire Christmas tree lights.
1903: The first mass-produced Christmas tree lights became available.
1920s: In this country, electric Christmas tree lights all but replaced the use of Christmas tree candles.