MyHeritage Traces Living Descendant of the Father of Electric Christmas Lights

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It’s hard to picture the holiday season without Christmas lights… but were they always such a central feature of the holidays? We did a little digging into the fascinating history of electric Christmas lights and even discovered a living descendant of the man behind the lights!

The first Christmas lights were wax candles used to decorate Christmas trees in 18th-century Germany, and the custom spread throughout Europe and America. However, as you can imagine, they were quite the fire hazard! In 1882, Edward Hibberd Johnson — an inventor who worked closely with Thomas Edison — decorated his Christmas tree with a string of red, white, and blue electric light bulbs… and Christmas tree lights were born.

Christmas Tree lights: National Christmas Tree lighting on the Ellipse in Washington, D.C., Dec. 4, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
National Christmas Tree lighting on the Ellipse in Washington, D.C., Dec. 4, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Using the research tools available on MyHeritage, we were able to build a family tree and trace Edward’s line all the way down to a direct living descendant — James Newburn, 67, from Nashville, Tennessee, who we then contacted to share our findings!

Christmas Tree Lights: James Newburn, the great-great grandson of Edward Hibberd Johnson, the inventor of the Christmas tree lights
James Newburn, the great-great grandson of Edward Hibberd Johnson, the inventor of the Christmas tree lights

James had no idea he was a direct descendant of the great inventor, and was absolutely delighted to learn about it.

“I was shocked and surprised and proud all at the same time,” he says. “I’ve always been creative and run many businesses of my own, so it confirmed that creativity runs in the family. It also might explain why I’m so incredibly festive,” he quips.

James, a retired entrepreneur, says that Christmas became much more enjoyable once he had his two children. He says his 10-year-old granddaughter still believes in Santa Claus, and that means the world to him.

“Now I get it,” he goes on. “This is why I love inventing things and starting businesses.”

James was awed by the level of detail MyHeritage was able to uncover about his ancestors. “I am very pleased and impressed with the thoroughness of your research,” he told us. “I now have to live up to it.”

This great story was even covered by the Daily Mail!

Humble but proud beginnings

Edward Hibberd Johnson came from humble but proud beginnings. He was born in Philadelphia on January 4, 1846. Hs father was a shoemaker and grocery clerk who served in the Civil War.

Just one generation later, Albert’s son, Edward, is recorded as an electrical engineer. In the 1910 census, he is listed as being 64 years old. His wife is also mentioned, and her name was Margaret Virginia Kenny Johnson.

Christmas tree lights: U.S. census record of Edward and Margaret Johnson in 1910
U.S. census record of Edward and Margaret Johnson in 1910

In addition to his work as an engineer, Edward served in World War I.

Christmas Tree lights: World War I draft registration card of Edward Hibberd Johnson
World War I draft registration card of Edward Hibberd Johnson

Edward had three children: Edna Earl Palmer, Lilian Adele Hoyt, and Edward Hibberd Johnson Jr.

Edward’s daughter, Edna

Edna was born on July 14, 1874 and died on April 11, 1935. She married George Quintard Palmer, who lived on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

According to the 1900 census, Edna’s husband George is listed as being in the iron business. Also listed is the pair’s daughter — Lilian A. Palmer.

The 1900 census record that lists Edna and George and their daughter Lilian.
The 1900 census record that lists Edna and George and their daughter Lilian.

Edward’s granddaughter, Lilian

Lilian — Edward’s granddaughter — was born on January 1897 in New York and died on December 19, 1957. An article in the New York newspaper The Sun reported her marriage to Henry Coster Steers on August 11, 1916:

Marriage announcement of Lillian and Henry, The Sun, 1916
Marriage announcement of Lillian and Henry, The Sun, 1916

The article states that the wedding took place in Christ Church, Rye, New York, and the reception followed at Alden farm.

Finding a living descendant

Lilian also appears in the 1930 U.S. census. At the time, she was divorced and living with her three daughters: Priscilla, Phebe Ann, and Anthea.

1930 census record details that Lilian is divorced and has three kids, Priscilla, Phebe Ann, and Anthea
1930 census record details that Lilian is divorced and has three kids, Priscilla, Phebe Ann, and Anthea

On September 8, 1949, Lilian’s daughter Anthea married James C. Newburn. Their son, also named James Newburn, is the great-great-grandson of Edward Hibberd Johnson!

Christmas Tree lights: James Newburn’s family tree traces his lineage to Edward Johnson
James Newburn’s family tree traces his lineage to Edward Johnson

James’s story is just one example of the kinds of incredible discoveries you can make about your family history using MyHeritage. You never know what you may find! Start building your tree today to learn about your own family.

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