Engineering Cheer: Innovations of the Holidays


The holiday season brings the reemergence of beloved familiar artifacts: festive treasures back from the basement, out of the holiday box in the attic, and in so many shop windows. Can you imagine the holidays without candy canes and tinsel? Take some time this season, as you enjoy a cup of cheer, to consider the origin of your favorite Christmas products and the innovators that have shaped so much of our traditions.

Candy Canes

More than just a stocking stuffer, this confectionery innovation is believed to originate in 17th-century Germany by a choirmaster frustrated with noisy children during church service. Sweet striped sticks came to symbolize the shepherd’s staff and other Christian imagery. The treat spread throughout Europe and became synonymous with the Christmas holiday. The candy cane is an enduring favorite, thanks to a very clever and observant choirmaster.


17th-century Germany saw the rise of another Christmas invention. Tinsel, developed by an unknown inventor, was originally produced by machines that shredded genuine silver into thin strips. Before enhancing the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree, tinsel was first used to adorn sculptures. Today, tinsel is made from non-tarnishing plastics and remains an enchanting staple in our holiday landscape.

Christmas Lights

We’ve been lighting up our spruces and pines since the reign of Queen Victoria. Up until the late 19th century, inefficient candles and lanterns were used to illuminate Christmas trees. An associate of Thomas Edison, and vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company, Edward H. Johnson created the first known electrically-lit Christmas bulbs. His hand-wired tree featured 80 walnut-sized incandescent bulbs in red, blue, and white. Christmas Lights wouldn’t catch on widely until 1930, when they became financially accessible to average person.

It’s difficult to imagine a world without these holiday creations, a world with a lot less sweetness and sparkle. As you celebrate this year, remember: the stuff of our lives, the props of our traditions, each began as an idea, a solution, and an innovation that, when nurtured, grew to mean so much to our families and our lives.