A Symphony of Lights Celebrates the Holiday Season

Going to Christmas lights displays, such as Howard County’s Symphony of Lights, has become a holiday tradition for my family. Symphony of Lights is a dazzling display of more than 100 larger-than-life animated and stationary holiday light creations, made up of more than 250,000 bulbs. During the past 21 years, nearly 2 million individuals have visited the lights, and proceeds from the event have raised more than $7.5 million to benefit Howard County General Hospital, the only hospital in Howard County.

Enjoying the simple pleasure of the lights made me wonder how the tradition of Christmas lights evolved.

As our holidays celebrations evolved, so did our fascination with lights displays. They became bigger and brighter….

The custom of lights at Christmas goes back to the use of candles that decorated the Christmas tree in Christian homes in early modern Germany, in the mid-1800s. Christmas trees displayed publicly and illuminated with electric lights became popular in the early 20th century. By the mid-20th century, it became customary to display strings of electric lights as along streets and on buildings. In the 1960s, it became popular to outline private homes with such Christmas lights in tract housing.
Eventually the research led me down the rabbit hole of wondering what happens to all those discarded lights? Is there a way to possibly recycle them? Christmas lighting does lead to some extensive recycling issues — and most, unfortunately, find their way into local landfills.
The good news is that there’s a place that actually wants our old, broken Christmas lights! Every year, more than 20 million pounds of discarded holiday lights are shipped to Shijiao, China (near Guangzhou), which has the distinction of being “the world capital for recycling Christmas lights.” I suspect there’s little competition for that title!
The combination of cheap labor and low, or no, environmental standards made it profitable for local companies and factories to recycle the lights. As late as 2009, many factories would simply burn the lights to melt the plastic and retrieve the copper wire, releasing toxic fumes into the local environment. However, now a safer technique is used, which involves chopping the lights into a fine sand-like consistency, mixing it with water and vibrating the slurry on a table causing the different elements to separate out, similar to the process of panning for gold. Everything is recycled: copper, brass, plastic and glass.

More and more cities in the United States are setting up sensible alternatives and schemes to recycle Christmas lights, with towns organizing drop-off points for handing in old or discarded lights. As you take down your lights displays, please look for these places and turn in your old lights, so that they can be responsibly recycled, rather than lasting an eternity in a landfill somewhere.

Happy Holidays!

Getting there: Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, Columbia, MD (use Merriweather Post Pavilion entrance off South Entrance Road); take Interstate 95 to route 32 West. Route 32 west to Route 29 North. Route 29 North to Exit 18B (Broken Land Parkway). Continue through 2 lights and make a right onto Little Patuxent Parkway.  Continue through 2 lights and make a right onto South Entrance Road. Turn right into the drive with signage for Merriweather Post Pavilion and Toby’s Dinner Theatre. The entrance to the Symphony of Lights is located to the right.

Hours: November 23, 2016 – January 1, 2017,  Wednesdays through Sundays only; 5:30-10 p.m., including holidays.

Can’t get enough of the holidays? Check out the great holiday season activities we’ve already written about!