The first Christmas trees I knew were cedar and chopped down in the woods near our house. When I was five Mama and I made paper chains to circle our tree and she cut stars out of cardboard that we covered with aluminum foil. I didn’t know it was because she couldn’t afford to buy ornaments. Those foil colored stars remained among our treasured decorations even in the years when we had shiny glass balls and silver tinsel galore. Their quiet glow always warmed my heart and reminded me of those winter mornings with my mama. A much taller cedar was the anointed tree in the sanctuary of the rural Baptist Church I attended with my family. I suspect a local farmer and member found it in the woods that wrapped the fields and roads in those days. The scent of cedar will forever remind me of Christmas.
My cousins across the road most often had a fir tree, which was a very strange looking tree to me as it was not native to the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Frazier firs are commonly found in the mountain region of the state so I suppose they purchased their tree. Money was slim in our house and purchasing a tree was not in my family’s budget. So imagine my surprise when Daddy actually purchased a Christmas tree for us. Of course, being his usual frugal self he felt it was a wise purchase, as this particular tree would last for many years to come. Yes. It was an artificial tree – a spectacular silver aluminum tree that came in a box. After the base was set up and the main upright poles secured, the limbs were fitted into the appropriately drilled holes. Once all the limbs were attached the aluminum tree fairly gleamed. Daddy had also purchased a special light that had a slowly revolving plastic disc with colored lenses so the tree could reflect a variety of colors – red, blue and yellow. It was the 1960’s and quite fashionable. The 1963 Sears Christmas Book declared: “Whether you decorate with blue or red balls…or use the tree without ornaments – this exquisite tree is sure to be the talk of your neighborhood. High luster aluminum gives a dazzling brilliance. Shimmering silvery branches are swirled and tapered to a handsome realistic fullness. It’s really durable… needles are glued and mechanically locked on. Fireproof… you can use it year after year.”
I was impressed that my parents were so cool and very pleased with this stylish expression of Christmas spirit. My little brother and I loved putting the tree together and decorating it. My mother was happy to be freed of the daily watering to keep our usual cedar tree from drying out as well as the daily sweeping up of the constantly shedding needles. Daddy no longer lectured on the possible fire hazard – but he still made us turn the tree light off at bedtime and whenever we left home. I used to beg to leave the revolving light on so that I could see its beauty radiating from our living room window when we returned home. That never happened – apparently the danger of fire lurked somewhere in his mind.
My parents continued to use that tree year after year – just as Sears had promised – long after it went out of fashion. They didn’t care and neither did I. That fake tree held as many happy memories on its branches as any green cedar ever did. By the end of the 1980’s many aluminum trees were sold in yard sales or relegated to the trash. By that time my parents were grandparents who lived in a small apartment and eventually they elected to have a small tabletop tree that was less trouble to erect and store. What happened to our grand silver tree I cannot say.
In recent years, the old has become new again and there has been resurgence in popularity of the aluminum Christmas tree. Collectors began buying and selling them – especially on Internet markets. As a matter of fact, a 7-foot tall pink aluminum tree sold on e-Bay for $3,600. If you recall “The Charlie Brown Christmas Special” from 1965 this might have been the very one that Lucy Van Pelt told Charlie Brown to get for their nativity play.
“Get the biggest aluminum tree you can find Charlie Brown – maybe painted pink,” she said. But, of course, Charlie Brown set out to find a tree as well as the meaning of Christmas and ended up with a sad little tree that was not aluminum – rather a real green one in need of a home – or so Charlie Brown thought. Some folks think this may have contributed to the decline of the aluminum tree. And you must admit that Lucy’s line, “Let’s face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate you know,” may have a ring of truth. Even so, commercialism has always been with us and fake trees have been around long before the aluminum ones showed up. There have been artificial trees made from dyed goose feathers attached to wire branches and trees constructed of tinted pig hair. And, of course, there are many thousands of glass and ceramic trees although most of these are not used to put the presents under.
One of my mama’s best friends, Crettie, made a green ceramic tree in her Ceramics Class for Mama one year – complete with multicolored “lights” lit from inside the hollow tree with a single bulb. Mama was delighted with her gift. She kept and treasured it for all of her life. I inherited it and put it out each year mostly in memory of their sweet friendship. A year or so ago I gifted it to my daughter. For her it is a memory of Christmas at her grandmother’s home.
The first Christmas my husband and I were together we were not married. He was a Vietnam veteran and musician finding his way. I was as lost as he and it was something of a miracle that we found one another. We tromped into the woods, cut down a small cedar, and dragged it home – along with a great deal of Carolina sand. Decorations were meager and mostly handmade but the scent of cedar made it smell like home. By the following Christmas we were married, had a tiny baby girl sleeping in a crib, and another cedar with a few more decorations on it than the previous year. We graduated to a house and bought green trees from a tree farm. The kind that look just right on the lot but are always too big when you get them home. I came to understand my mother’s feelings about watering a dying tree and constantly sweeping up evergreen needles. Eventually, we bought a fake tree but it was green and looked about as real as a fake tree can look. By the time we strung lights and hung our decorations it was as magnificent as any tree we had ever seen – real or fake.
The Christmas our daughter was in college and living in Scotland I generously suggested that she not come home for Christmas but instead enjoy being abroad. We flew her first cousin to be with her and bought both of them Eurail tickets as Christmas presents. Knowing how life can be I figured it could be an opportunity that might not come for her again. I was feeling proud of myself and relatively happy until it was time to put up our tree. I took to bed sobbing, feeling very depressed, and totally lacking in Christmas spirit. After allowing me to wallow in self-pity for a time my husband came into our bedroom, announced that we still had one child at home and we couldn’t abandon Christmas. And right in the middle of putting up our tree I found my Christmas spirit. It didn’t make me miss our daughter less but it helped me find the joy in her experience as well as our own.
The first Christmas after I lost both my parents I was grief stricken. My daughter was all grown up and on her own but our son was still at home. I tried to summon the energy to open the attic and make the first move towards putting up our tree. But the energy didn’t come and my husband did not insist. Instead he suggested that we find a small tabletop tree with lights and let that be our tree. I agreed but felt guilty that I was allowing my grief to cloud my son’s Christmas joy. So I took a deep breath and decided to discuss all things Christmas with him. As it turns out I learned quite a lot from our discussion. Alex has autism and he sees the world differently. I was strongly reminded of this during our conversation. I began by telling him that I was feeling sad because I missed my parents. I said that sometimes the holidays could make people miss their family even more and I since that was true for me I was not feeling like putting up our big tree.
“Daddy and I were thinking we would just get a small tree with lights and put it on the table in the living room this year. Would you be okay with that?” I asked. Alex stared into space for a few minutes and then volleyed, “Does that mean you aren’t going to move the furniture?”
“Well, I suppose so,” I pondered.
“Good. I hate it when you move the furniture,” he declared. I was stunned. Then I offered that I would at least get down the fireplace jumping jacks. I had a collection of several wooden jumping jacks that I hung at our mantel. Most of them looked like some rendition of the famous Nutcracker but there was also a soldier and an angel among them. All their joints were connected by a string and by pulling a string at the bottom they moved into various positions. Alex’s eyes widened and he said,
“No! I hate those jumping jacks. They look strange and scary.” Another surprise revelation. And all that time I had thought they were so cute and that my children enjoyed them! Oh, well. (Here I shrug my shoulders) That Christmas we had one small tree sitting on a table in our living room. No furniture was rearranged to accommodate it and no Christmas Jumping Jacks hung from our fireplace mantel – only stockings. And Christmas came just the same as it always did – except I learned a little more about my puzzling son and I found joy waiting quietly beneath my heartache. I believe that such joy dwells in the green of cedar or in the sparkle of aluminum but mostly in the spirits of those we love – wherever they are.