Charlie Brown almost killed my Christmas.
Growing up in the 1960s, we had an aluminum Christmas tree. It gleamed in our living room, a glorious, shiny specialty we created every December.
To build our tree, the center pole, a wooden dowel painted dull silver, was mounted on an L-shaped metal brace, fastened with only a few Phillips-head screws. The pole had holes drilled at angles to hold the rods with the shiny aluminum branches.
I remember carefully unpacking the strands of delicate silver. They were stored in paper tubes and marked by lengths. Thin curls of aluminum were wound around a metal shaft, the gleaming foils representing space-age metallic needles. Each ended in a type of spectacular pom-pom that erupted to fill the gaps. Light radiated from the layers, shiny beacons like shooting stars glistening in the soft glow of the season. I was always enchanted.
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A few years ago, I found our old tree and reassembled it. Nostalgic memories filled my thoughts along with my playlist of holiday songs from that era. “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by Andy Williams. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee. “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Rydell and Chubby Checker.
But Marcy, my wife, was not amused. She loved the traditional tree, the sweet smell of pine, the fresh green backdrop to ornaments and strings of lights. Those trees carried not only emotional but spiritual sentiments.
And compared with her, my history was barren. First of all, my family were Buddhists and the Christmas holiday was not part of our religious tradition (although we adapted well, calling our gifts “end of the year” celebrations). We rarely decorated our silver tree, believing the shiny colors were good enough.
Yet I tried to negotiate with my wife: why not revive an old/new tradition? I remember, as a kid in the ’60s, rationalizing the merits of our “fake” tree. Aluminum trees felt modern, part of the new rocket age of science and technology and glitter. It could store forever. It was fireproof. Years of dazzling brilliance and luster lay ahead.
Later, I learned that these shiny trees were first mass manufactured in Manitowoc, Wisc., in 1959. (Home state of Marcy, I added to my barrister-like argument). The mother firm was the Aluminum Specialty Co., from a small working-class city on the shores of Lake Michigan. (A slightly earlier version was made by Modern Coatings Inc. in Chicago but it was expensive and bulky, more for department store window displays). Engineers in the Badger State found a way to mass produce the trees and the prices dropped to a reasonable $25.
I imagined my parents discussing the issue. Buying a live tree every year added to their cost-benefit analysis. Also, I’m sure my father’s work ethic played a significant role. Forcing him to take a few hours away from pruning to get a tree must have weighed heavy in his decision. Dad loved the idea you only made a single purchase and he had better uses for our Chevy Apache pickup – like staying on the farm where it was supposed to be.
Silver was the most popular, other colors included a rare pink. They manufactured table-top models. Some were 8 feet high. Ours was a standard 6-footer that towered over me.
But we never had the color wheel. The Colortone Electric Roto-Wheel was a simple light bulb that shined through a round flat disk with different colored plastic windows. A motor gently rotated the wheel and when each window passed in front of the light, a fantastic spectrum of colors radiated up into the tree. I dreamed of casting a red, blue and green sparkle up into our tree.
However, the glittering reign of these trees was short-lived and within a few years, most were relegated to the trash can. Blame it on a 1965 fateful holiday TV special.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” depicted a depressed Charlie Brown searching for the true meaning of Christmas. He grew weary of the over-commercialization and secularism of the holiday.
The cartoon special climaxes with Charlie rescuing a forgotten, misfit, scrawny little pine tree as his special gift to the season. The other characters eventually see the joy in the tree and help prop it back up as they sing in harmony. The nation loved the special and it airs annually to this day.
Our glitzy aluminum tree didn’t stand a chance. The bolder, flashier, showy artificial tree stood in contrast to the beauty of the natural tree – the chosen one soaring with the spirit of the season. Our tree was doomed and an entire fake tree industry collapsed in a few years. Damn you, Charlie Brown.
Into the late 1960s, we continued to construct our tree. Then my older brother and sister went off to college. I alone tried to revive the tradition but eventually stopped my lonely ritual. We stored the box for decades on top of the freezer in the laundry room.
Until two years ago. The spirit re-emerged and I tried to recreate my childhood memories. I found most of the tree intact (remember, it would last forever!). It had a retro look minus the shame of Charlie Brown. I looked online and suddenly it was popular, some pristine trees selling for hundreds, even thousands of dollars.
I posted a photo of it on Facebook and people “liked” me (actually the tree but I took credit). The future had arrived, our tree has new status. The glittery space-age look from the ’60s was now a modernist design and ageless symbol of …? Marcy shook her head and allowed her childlike husband to have his wish.
It makes me happy. Perhaps even Charlie Brown will forgive me now.
David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and award-winning author of books, including “Epitaph for a Peach.”