Midwinter, or the hibernal solstice, is the longest and darkest night of the year, when our planet tilts its northern reaches furthest from the sun’s warm embrace, when man most craves light.
Since time immemorial, humankind has striven to keep the winter dark and cold at bay and has pined for the revitalization that comes with spring. Torches, wax tapers, and the display of evergreen boughs were used during the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, which ran for a week from 17 to 24 December (Julian calendar). This popular, pagan, end-of-autumn festival, eventually coopted by Christian Rome into the Church’s calendar, involved wreaths and greenery, over-eating, drinking, singing, gift-giving and overall joyful celebration – by torch, taper and candlelight. Sound familiar?
Although they certainly existed earlier in northern Europe, the first documented Christmas tree appeared in Strasbourg in 1604, and the first historical mention of Christmas trees adorned with candles appeared in southeastern Saxony in 1737. At the time, candles were comparatively expensive, restricting the custom to upper-class households, who could presumably afford to rebuild should they accidently burn down their houses.
The first strand of electric lights was created by the inventor Thomas Edison, and hung outside his Menlo Park, New Jersey lab during the 1880 Christmas season – whether these count as Christmas lights is a matter of definition. In 1882, Edison’s associate Edward H Johnson is credited with first stringing 80 red, white and blue electric lights on a Christmas tree, which he displayed to the press and public from his Manhattan townhouse parlor window on a rotating platform. Johnson also pioneered the tradition of doing more each year: in 1884, he had 120 lights on his tree.
Fast-forward to Gstaad in the early 1970s. Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards had recently bought chalet Fleur de Lys, and Andrews thought it a pity that the town’s gently-sloping roofs she found so endearing disappeared at night during wintertime. So, to give Gstaad some sparkle, Andrews purchased 1,000 Christmas lights for the tourist office, something that would have far exceeded the bureau’s holiday budget. In a spectacularly generous display of incandescent holiday good cheer, Andrews funded the utility costs and maintenance of the so-called Julie-Lämpli along Gstaad’s Hauptstrasse for the next dozen years.
Since 1991, the munificent tradition of maintaining those twinkling gabled eaves is carried on by the Dekorationsgruppe Gstaad. Six people working on a voluntary basis, often in the evenings, install and maintain some 78 rooflines of lights along the Promenade, providing that effervescent holiday brio that so defines Gstaad in December. The legacy of Andrews’ illumining inspiration is well served by her civic-minded successors.
The idea caught fire. For example, BKW-ISP, a local electrical services group, provisions an additional 140 chalet roofs with illumination, along with installing lights on trees, wreaths and balconies for approximately 75 subscribers. Until two years ago, those strands had individual bulbs, which would necessitate arduous acrobatics to fix should one fail high above. Today, strings of LEDs, with their inherent reliability, alleviate the worry of frequent replacement, and sadly deprive us of stories of rooftop derring-do around the Christmas hearth.
Torches, tapers and candles, those most traditional of all Christmas lights, can still be found everywhere in the Saanenland, both indoors and out, bathing entryways, windows and rooms with their warmth and timeless glow. We’re not so different from our ancient forebears. Our hearts cheerfully anticipate the waxing of the light in the new year. Frohe Festtage and Joyeuses Fêtes to all!