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How one enterprising electrician made Denver the Christmas capital of the world

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Sturgeon Electric honors its founder's legacy of inventing outdoor Christmas lights — which D.D. Sturgeon did to bring Christmas cheer to his ailing son — by partnering with Colorado Children's Hospital to decorate homes of patients with Christmas lights. 
Photo courtesy Sturgeon Electric

This article was first published on Colorado Community Media

Around Christmastime in 1914, David Dwight Sturgeon’s son fell ill and became bedridden.

Sturgeon, an electrician who would go on to start the Sturgeon Electric Company, devised a plan to dip light bulbs in red and green paint and string them on a tree outside the family’s home on 34th in Denver.

The elder Sturgeon strung the lights up around the tree so that his son, David, could see them from his bedroom window. Though he may not have known it at the time, Sturgeon’s efforts would change the way that people celebrate Christmas the world over.

Though Sturgeon did not invent indoor Christmas lights — that designation goes to Thomas Edison, who did so in the 1800s, according to Sturgeon Electric’s Marketing Director Erin Stromberg — his innovation spread like wildfire throughout early 20th-century Denver.

“People went past the house and saw it and liked the look of it,” Jason Hansen, History Colorado’s director of interpretation and research said. “And we then as now knew that they had to keep up with their neighbors.

“And so, the next year, there were a few more houses with Christmas lights, (and) after that even more houses had Christmas lights, and it spread really rapidly throughout Denver,” Hansen continued.

As the outdoor lights became more widespread, an intrepid reporter from the Denver Post took note. Francis “Pinky” Wayne picked up the story and wrote several articles on Sturgeon’s invention, according to local freelance writer and historian Rosemary Fetter.

The idea’s popularity spurred Wayne to organize the first outdoor Christmas lighting contest — which drew hundreds of participants. Soon after, the tradition had gained a foothold across the front range.

The Denver City and County Building with Christmas decorations in 1935. 
Photo: Courtesy History Colorado. Accession #94.319.6

By 1938, Denver had begun to display Christmas lights on the City and County Building and Civic Center, and soon dubbed itself the ‘Christmas City,’ according to Hansen. City Electrician John Malpiede oversaw the decoration of city buildings for over 30 years.

Around the same time, the city began urging visitors from all over to come and see the festivities, which soon begat another local tradition: leaving Christmas lights up until the conclusion of the Stock Show.

“That’s really where the tradition that most of us still observe today, of leaving our lights up until the end of the Stock Show, because so many people were coming to Denver, both for the Christmas season and for the Stock Show,” Hansen said. “It was an act of hospitality to leave the lights up so that everybody can enjoy them.”

In 1945, NBC did a broadcast tribute to Denver and the Sturgeon family for having originated the tradition, according to Stromberg.

Now, Sturgeon Electric — still in business after all these years — celebrates its Christmastime roots by partnering with Colorado Children’s Hospital to hang lights on the homes of kids who are ailing during the holidays.

“This will be the sixth year in a row that Sturgeon Electric gives back to our community by putting lights on the homes of a child who is currently at Children’s Hospital,” Stromberg said. “We’re glad to be able to give back to our community and carry that tradition forward.”

This year, for History Colorado’s Zoom In exhibit — which examines the Centennial State’s history in 100 artifacts — Hansen’s research team looked into the claim that Sturgeon invented outdoor Christmas lights to see if they could verify what many Denverites know as a piece of local mythology.

“It’s one of those stories where it may just be urban legend,” Hansen said. “And so, we went in and looked into it. I had a team of researchers that were working on that exhibition, and we dug into it trying to disprove it. And we couldn’t. It’s one of those enduring traditions, which is why we wanted to include it in the 100 objects exhibition.”

Thus, there is a strand of Christmas lights on display at the Zoom In exhibit at History Colorado’s Denver museum.

The organization also puts on an annual Christmas light tour that takes merrymakers on a bus ride throughout the city to discuss the tradition’s history and look at lighting displays today.

Information for History Colorado’s Christmas light tour can be found at

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