November 29, 2009

Lighting the darkness.

During December, the month with the shortest daylight hours of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, many households in North-West Europe are decorated with symbolic candlesticks to “banish” the darkness. It's a tradition rooted in the Christian Advent, reaching back to the Middle Ages, though the modern variants of wreaths or candlesticks, with four candles representing each of the Sundays preceding Christmas Day lit in succession, originated among German Lutherans in the mid-1850s.

The tradition of lighting Advent candles (or wreaths) didn't arrive in Sweden until the 1870s, and didn't become widespread until the 1920s, though candles had been integral to seasonal celebrations for centuries. Today electric Advent candlesticks with seven candles in a pyramid shape dominate, and seem to change the entire country's appearance overnight, displayed in practically every home, institution, and workplace from the beginning of December (occasionally earlier) to
St. Knut's Day.

Originally referred to as julljusstakar, "Yule candlesticks", to avoid confusion with the live candle variety, they are a fairly recent addition to the season's decorations. The very first electric Advent candlestick was constructed (but not patented) in 1934 by Oscar Andersson (1909-1996), an employee at the Göteborg warehouse of the Dutch electronics firm Philip

Towards the end of 1929, Philips introduced electric Christmas tree lamps in Sweden. Many of these lamp-sets, designed for 120 V common in urban centres at the time, were returned 'defective' to the Philips warehouse, having been subjected to 220 V in rural areas. Tasked at the warehouse with salvaging the functioning lamps from these sets, Mr Andersson - a technical gymnasium graduate – had the idea to mount electric Christmas tree lamps on an ordinary wooden candlestick (purchased at Grand Bazar for 2 Swedish krona, or roughly 53 cents – the equivalent of C$ 8.80 today).

Displayed in the window of his parent's apartment on Karl Gustav Street in the quarter of Landala, the approval Mr Andersson's invention garnered among passers-by encouraged him to present the electric Advent candlestick to his supervisor. Savvy to its potential, the supervisor brought the contraption to Philips' Stockholm headquarters, where initial scepticism eventually turned into an agreement to manufacture a trial run of 2000 electric candlesticks for the 1939 Christmas season.

Marketed as a “fireproof,” safer alternative to live candlesticks, the
Philips Candlesticks were completely sold out (at 13 krona apiece, or roughly C$ 3.38 – equal to C$ 44.39 today) before Christmas Day that year. Mass-production commenced once WWII ended, and the material shortages caused by it were rectified. By the mid-1990s, around a million electric Advent candlesticks were sold in Sweden annually and could be found in just over 90% of Swedish households.

Intriguingly, the advent of the electric Advent candlestick largely altered its function from a symbolic, religious one, to a practically secular, illuminating one – pleasantly dispelling the darkness for believers and non-believers alike over the past 70 years.

Note: this article originally posted on November 29, 2008.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1/12/08

    Interesting. I have four of them (electrical candle sticks) in my house now. I have also mounted in almost every window "advent" stars, i.e. three dimensional stars made of red or white paper, containing a tiny 15W light bulb. They spread a surprisingly warm, faint and cosy light. It's not only the light itself, but also the promise of a wonderful Christmas which I imagined in my childhood, watching the advent star before falling to sleep in my room.
    I have put a star in my son's room and even if he's barely two years old, he already shows the same fascination as I once did.



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