Once the 'Christmas Capital of the World,' Denver Is Where Outdoor Holiday Lights Began
There are lots of opinions about outdoor holiday lights: when they should go up, how big displays should be and especially when they should come down. But KUNC reporter Stacy Nick spoke with History Colorado exhibit developer and public historian Julie Peterson to find out where the tradition may have gotten its start.
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Stacy Nick: So everybody knows the tradition that you don't take down your holiday lights until after the National Western Stock Show in January, but I've never heard that outdoor holiday lights may have actually started in Colorado.
Julie Peterson: Outdoor Christmas lights is a tradition that started right here in Denver in 1914. Denver electrician D.D. Sturgeon was looking for ways to cheer up his four-year-old son. His son, David, was too ill to spend Christmas around the tree with his family, and so Sturgeon, being an electrician, came up with the ingenious idea of dipping some light bulbs in red and green paint and then he strung them on electrical wire and actually hung them on the pine tree outside his son's window so that his son could have a little holiday cheer. And this became enough of a sensation in the neighborhood in northwest Denver that people came to see the lights and it became really, really popular. And soon people started taking the idea and running with it and decorating their own homes for the holidays with outdoor lights.
How did the idea transcend from one neighborhood in Denver to everywhere?
Possibly because of this neighborhood sensation, in 1919 city electrician John Malpiede was actually changing the lights in Civic Center Park in the light posts to have green and red lights for the holidays. So he started doing that sort of outdoor decoration just five years later and that really became a big sensation. He expanded the holiday lighting every year and by 1938 the city and county building began to be lit up for the holidays, which is still a tradition today.
As a journalist, I have to be careful any time someone says something was the first. How can you determine that, indeed, Denver was the home of the first outdoor holiday lights?
Yeah, as a historian as well. We can point to the evidence we have, and as far as we know, this really was the first time at least that it was widely reported and a practice that was copied. It may not have been the first, but as far as we know, it is really the first instance of outdoor Christmas lighting.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the research process behind this? What things did you look at in order to track down the story?
First of all, I kind of tracked down various instances of the reports of this story. There are some really old Denver Post stories. Early versions of the story reported that the electrician was the boy's grandfather. A lot of those stories were really sensational and said that it was going to be the boy's last Christmas. And I actually dug into it a little bit to first determine if it was the electrician's grandson or his son. But I found a census record from 1920 that shows D.D. Sturgeon, the electrician, living at that same house in northwest Denver with his teenage daughter, a six-year-old daughter, and a 10-year-old son, David. And so we can presume that that Christmas in 1914 when he was so sick was not David's last Christmas. And so perhaps the outdoor lights really did bring him enough cheer to kind of pull him through.
What do you think the tipping scale was for making outdoor lights as prevalent as they are today?
One thing that can sort of help us consider how the popularity of outdoor lights expanded is actually the fact that outdoor lights became less expensive. So when Christmas lights were first invented, they were sort of an expensive commodity. And so by the 1920s, there were enough houses being lit up with Christmas lights and holiday lights outside that Denver became known as the “Christmas Capital of the World.” And part of that is because the production of electrical lights became — they were easily manufactured and everyday homes could afford to buy these Christmas lights.
The Christmas lights we actually have in our exhibition, “Zoom In: The Centennial State in 100 Objects,” are from the 1930s, so just about a decade or so after this electric light sensation really started taking off. And what you see there is seven different colored bulbs on one strand that could be connected with up to five other strands of similar lights. So really similar to what you would see today.
This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for Dec. 8. You can find the full episode here.