The front page of Sunday's Washington Times had an article reporting that aluminum Christmas trees, that marvel of the 1960s, are enjoying a revival of sorts ("Nostalgia stirs renewed appeal of 'tacky' trees," December 19, 2004).
In it, reporter Jennifer Harper notes that current marketers of the once-all-the-rage, later-repudiated-and-mocked decorations
heed the advice from "Conny of Alcoa," the official home-design hostess of the Aluminum Company of America, circa 1961.
"Decorated with plain ornaments and inexpensive spotlights, aluminum trees develop a spectacular ethereal beauty," Conny counseled in a booklet boasting photos of bouffant-haired women in shirtwaist dresses and stiletto heels, earnestly intent on their aluminum trees.
I remember aluminum Christmas trees. Conny was right: they did possess "ethereal beauty." More than that, they were a respectable replacement for "live" trees, which had a tendency to shed needles and become fire hazards (especially in the days of big, bulky bulbs on frayed electrical wires). At the time, artificial trees that could "pass" as real trees were rare and expensive, if available at all. Developments in plastics manufacturing didn't make realistic fake trees possible and economical until the 1970s.
The aluminum trees made no pretense of realism. They were fake, and obviously so.
In December 1964, just a few days before Christmas, my family moved into a new home, the first one we owned. My sister was still six years from being born, and I was a 5-year-old only child. I still remember that, before doing anything else -- arranging furniture, unpacking boxes, hanging pictures on the walls -- my mother assembled and decorated a "tacky" aluminum Christmas tree and stood it in the bay window of our suburban Milwaukee home. The branches were silver and the balls hanging from them were a uniform pink. But they glowed in the primary colors of the spotlight with the revolving color wheel. And the new neighbors were suitably impressed by this display of priorities.
Believe me, to a 5-year-old in a strange house surrounded by snow -- this was Wisconsin in December, after all -- that aluminum tree was awesomely beautiful.
By about 1968, that particular tree became frayed and lost its lustre. We tossed it out and replaced it with a tacky green tree that no one could believe was "real." My grandparents, on the other hand, doggedly used authentic trees until 1972, when my grandfather brought one home that immediately shed approximately 80 percent of its needles. That one ended up in the fire and a tall, fat artificial evergreen took its place.
As for myself, I have never bought a "real" Christmas tree and I have a real fake tree now. Most people who see it don't suspect that it is plastic and wires -- that is, until they touch it or smell it. Someday I may redecorate my entire home in a retro-60s look (my house was built in 1959, and I have this dream of decorating it as it might have been decorated by the original owners -- something on the order of the furnishings and style of the Petrie house on the Dick Van Dyke Show). If I do, I'll acquire a tacky aluminum tree and bathe in its space-age luminescence.
As I look at the date, to my surprise, I realize it was precisely 40 years ago today that my mother set aside unpacking our household for more important things: setting up that tacky, metallic tree in an otherwise empty room so Santa would have a place to leave presents for us, underneath its shiny branches. For that, I'll forgive the bouffant hair-dos and paper Yellow Pages dresses that were also the fads of that era.
Update: Check out the Christmas items I have designed at my CafePress shop, called (naturally) "Gifts from RickSincere.com."
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