A Holiday Tradition: Driving the Neighborhood to See Decorations

In the midst of all the holiday chaos, many Americans still set aside an evening to load the family into the car and drive around to see the neighborhood holiday decorations. From a rooftop Santa and sleigh to a complete Santa’s workshop that covers an entire front yard to a religious scene with a crèche, most communities have well-known neighborhoods where the homeowners go all-out for the holiday.

No entity could be happier than the power company about neighborhood holiday decorations, which inevitably use a wide variety of lighting. It is only fitting that one of the early locations that pioneered outdoor displays was a lighting company in Cleveland, Ohio that was started in 1901.

General Electric: Vying for Dominance

As with more recent technologies (think PC vs. Mac or Betamax vs. VHS) there was a power struggle for what company’s socket and bulb would win dominance. General Electric (formed in 1892 by merging the Edison Electric Company and the Thomson Houston Company) was aggressively investing in smaller lighting companies to increase the market penetration of their sockets and bulbs. General Electric invested in the National Electric Lamp Company in Cleveland, and soon they owned 75 percent of it, which led to a court-mandated division of the company.

One of the original Cleveland entrepreneurs suggested that the lamp operation, which was to be divested from the power company, be relocated from Cleveland to the countryside. Midway through the 1910s, the owners purchased an abandoned vineyard seven miles outside Cleveland and construction began for Nela Park, the first industrial park in the world. The campus featured Georgian Revival-style buildings that created an “institute of fine arts” feeling. (Nela Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.)

Holiday Decorations Begin

In 1925 the campus began sponsoring outdoor Christmas displays. The first year, engineers installed “Yuletide Greetings” signage across the rooftop of the engineering building. The lighting of the sign changed, varying from a dim orange to a bright red. This gave the illusion of the words shrinking and then puffing out as the lighting changed. By the third year, the lighting designers added searchlights and twinkling stars, and local residents had started making pilgrimages to Nela Park, stopping their cars just outside the gates to sit and watch in wonder as the lights changed.

As the years went by, the Nela designers wanted to build interest, so they created a drive-through plan where families could see lighted Christmas trees and small scenes as they traveled through the property. The company sponsored design contests for the employees, which increased excitement about each year’s new plan. At first, Cleveland residents loved it.

Like most of the rest of the country, Nela Park went dark during World War II, and the holiday tradition did not resume until 1949. However, Nela Park’s prominence was clear by the 1950s, when Bing Crosby appeared to sing “White Christmas” at the opening of the holiday season.

While the fun of providing a holiday event was all well and good, the bosses were certainly interested in building desire for more people to use electricity, so they were particularly cheered in 1955 when the number of houses using outdoor lighting (14 percent up until that time) jumped 22 percent.

Changing Times

But times change. Nela Park was becoming conscious of how much time and money was being expended on the holiday plans, and Cleveland neighborhoods had expanded to encircle the campus. Nearby neighbors began to complain about the traffic that choked the area throughout the season. In 1959 Nela Park closed the campus to drive-through traffic, limiting decorations to the fence along the perimeter. One year they decided to forgo decoration altogether, but rumors of GE’s demise were rampant and troublesome, so the display came back and continues.

Today, Nela Park is the world headquarters for General Electric’s Lighting Division and also offers a perfect setting for lighting conferences. The holiday lighting extravaganza continues to run along several blocks along Noble Road from early December through New Year’s Day.

The tradition of outdoor holiday lighting that Nela established had a firm foothold throughout the country by the 1960s. Outlining the house in lights, stringing lights through trees and lacing them through bushes became popular, along with holiday scenes and lighted reindeer, all of which delight passersby. Some displays are so elaborate that one can’t help but think, “How do they pay the electric bill?” Wouldn’t the founders of Nela be proud?

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