Denver Showed It Had the Light Stuff a Century Ago, With the First Christmas Tree

This has been a tough year for Colorado history, with the state marking the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre on November 29 and the hundredth anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre back in April. But not all anniversaries are dark: A century ago, Denver was the first spot in the world to feature outdoor Christmas lights. Or so the story goes -- and this is just the time of year for prettily tied-up tales. See also: Nativity Scene Protests Are a Denver Tradition -- Jesus, Mary and Joseph!

On Christmas Eve 1914, ten-year-old David Jonathan Sturgeon was in bed at his home at 4408 West 34th Avenue in Denver, too sick to go downstairs and join his family around the Christmas tree. David Dwight "D.D." Sturgeon, a pioneering Denver electrician, decided to cheer up his son, so he dipped lightbulbs in red and green paint, connected them to electrical wire, and hung them in a pine tree outside David's window, brightening his holiday and inspiring people from miles away to come marvel at the sight of the illuminated tree. Although there had been a few earlier outdoor decorating attempts around the country, they dimmed compared to the glowing reports provided by Denver Post reporter Pinky Wayne, and enthusiastic city boosters of a century ago were soon touting this as the first illuminated outdoor Christmas tree. The next year, Sturgeon neighbors decorated their trees, too, and the tradition lived on. (Sadly, young David did not; he succumbed to a different illness.)

Denver was soon in the spotlight of a national craze. D.D. Sturgeon was dubbed the "Father of Yule Lighting." Wayne organized the country's first outdoor-lighting contest in Denver in 1918, attracting hundreds of contestants. (Wayne's efforts inspired manufacturers to come up with affordable products that would work indoors and outdoors regardless of the weather, local historian Rosemary Fetter reports, and as a result, electric billboards across the country began to flash with colored globes, giving rise to flashing neon signs.) By 1919, the official city electrician, John Malpiede, had caught the fever and replaced the lights in Denver Civic Center with colored globes of red and green for the holidays. The next year, he put an illuminated Christmas tree in front of the State Capitol. After that, he kept scavaging for items -- and buildings -- to add to his holiday display. In 1926, Mayor Ben Stapleton gave him the okay and $400 to illuminate the front of City Hall, and by the late 1920s, Denver had become known as the "Christmas Capital of the World." In 1945, NBC broadcast a tribute to Denver and the Sturgeon family for having created a beautiful holiday tradition.

By the time Malpiede retired in 1956, Denver's fancy new City and County Building was more than twenty years old, and his holiday lighting project had grown to an annual extravaganza, with seventeen miles of electrical wiring and 25,000 bulbs. The display spilled down the steps of the neoclassical municipal building, landing at a Nativity scene -- but taking several creative detours along the way. As a result, the holiday show had gotten so garish and tasteless that after Quigg Newton took over as mayor in 1947, he brought in an artist to redesign it, creating a huge uproar in the process. "He discovered that Denverites like things that are garish and tasteless," historian Tom Noel points out.

Denverites aren't the only ones, of course: Holiday decorating is a multimillion-dollar business, but even as people add the latest marvels -- flashing icicles! Blow-up snowmen! -- they remain tied to their traditions. New Denver mayor John Hickenlooper learned that in 2004, when he suggested replacing the "Merry Christmas" sign at the top of the City and County Building with the more inclusive "Happy Holidays" -- which made sense not just because Denver is home to more than Christians, but also because the lighting display glows from the day after Thanksgiving through Christmas and into late January, as a cheerful, if over-the-top, welcome for visitors to the National Western Stock Show. But Hickenlooper was quickly persuaded to leave the sign alone. "Over the past several days, it has become clear to me that there is strong community sentiment to maintain the 'Merry Christmas' sign, and I am glad to oblige," he said at the time. "My intention was never to disrespect or slight anyone or any religious tradition. I apologize to anyone who may have been offended or mistakenly felt I was being anti-Christmas. 'Hickenlooper' might have two Os, but I am not Scrooge. We are happy to keep the 'Merry Christmas' sign." Today Hickenlooper gets to gaze down at that sign, and the riotous display that surrounds it, from the vantage point of the Colorado governor's office across the way. Keep reading for more of Colorado's Christmas lighting traditions.

There have been other changes over the years, though. During the cash-strapped '80s, the budget-busted city was going to dispense with the display, until the Keep the Lights Foundation came through with enough cash to leave the lights on. (Sturgeon Electric Company, the business that D.D. Sturgeon founded in 1912, has never been in the holiday-lighting business itself, but it contributed to that campaign; today it's a large commercial, industrial construction company responsible for a lot of the power lines across the country. Although it's now a subsidiary of a holding company, it continues to be based in Colorado, in Henderson, and "we're still hanging," says Elaine Hughes, the vice-president of business development, who also fields phone calls about Sturgeon's role in the creation of the first outdoor Christmas tree.)

The Denver City and County Building display is now safely back in the city budget, and a few years ago, all those bulbs were replaced with LED lights that are not only more energy-efficient (they use only a third of the energy of previous years), but allow for the colors to be changed with the flick of a switch -- creating those recent celebrations of pink, purple, red and, of course, orange-and-blue causes.

But it's what's below the lights -- the Nativity scene on the steps -- that has always created the most controversy. In order to keep church and state separate, over the years Denver has added a number of non-religious figures to the display, including giant nutcrackers, reindeer, candy canes and Santa's workshop. But even so, in 1981, four individuals -- who described themselves as "tax-paying non-Christians" -- filed a complaint in Denver District Court alleging that the Nativity scene erected on city property and funded through tax revenues was a violation of their rights. They asked that Denver not only be prohibited from displaying the scene, but forced to sell it at public auction. The case went to trial in 1982, when aptly named historian Noel talked about "virgin birth" and then-mayor William McNichols testified that he'd received "thousands" of letters concerning the display, which generated a feeling of goodwill "that is rarely matched during the rest of the year."

Ultimately, the court determined that Denver's Nativity scene did not violate article II, section 4 of the Colorado Constitution -- the so-called Preference Clause, which states that no preference shall be "given by law to any religious denomination or mode of worship" -- and four years later, in September 1986, the Colorado Supreme Court concurred. "Considered in the context of the larger display," the judges ruled, the Denver Nativity scene "does not violate the Preference Clause of the Colorado Constitution."

In the nearly thirty years since that ruling, the Colorado Supreme Court's position has only been strengthened by U.S. Supreme Court decisions -- and the addition of even more junk to the display has helped, too. Consider it the Santa Clause: While it may insult aesthetics, it keeps Colorado constitutional. To combat the filching of the Baby Jesus -- by radio pranksters, not cranky atheists -- the Nativity scene is now covered in glass, like a square snow globe. At some pivotal point now lost to history, Santa's workshop was replaced with a workshop full of country-music elves; the nutcrackers surrendered to old age. But angels on high still oversee the action.

When the lights go on at 6 p.m. Friday, November 28, what's now billed as the "Grand Illumination" will light up not just the Denver City and County Building, but much of downtown, all the way to Denver Union Station, which went dark for the past two holiday seasons during a massive renovation. Like the country's first lit-up Christmas tree, the main terminal building is now a century old -- and the stuff of future legends.

Let there be light.

Send tips to patricia.calhoun@westword.com.

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