A six-foot tall aluminum Christmas tree stood in my friends’ front window. Strung with sparkling white lights it shimmered like a distorted disco ball. It was meant to be ironic, I figured, crass commercialism as a beacon of hip.
“We had one when I was growing up,” the host explained.
“It reminds me of my Nana’s house,” said a guest.
“I’ve tried to block it out,” I said, “But my grandparents had one, too.”
Nostalgia just isn’t what it used to be.
When I was a kid in Minneapolis, our trees came from frigid parking lots where they’d been packed, stacked and shipped with branches tied down for easy handling. You took one of these pine-scented popsicles home on faith and hoped that it thawed in a shape resembling an actual tree. Most times they did. But one year my grandparents decided they were done taking chances in subzero temperatures so opted instead for a trip to Sears, returning triumphant with a long cardboard box. Inside was a 6-foot-plus, silver-painted, wooden dowel drilled with holes. It looked like a sickly stick had been attacked by a flock of particularly precise woodpeckers.
Also packaged in the box were 80 triangular-shaped cardboard sleeves resembling giant Toblerone candies. Alas, they contained not delicious Swiss chocolate but rather 80 aluminum branches. To assemble the tree, one simply stuck any one branch into any one hole. It was like chicken plucking in reverse.
To my grandparents, a tree that could be purchased in a warm store, put together without directions, didn’t need watering, and was guaranteed to be conical – forever and ever -- was clearly a Space Age thing of wonder. To my mother, it was a tinsel-toned monstrosity. We kids remained open-minded even as the motorized color wheel whirled transforming the reflective tree into a rotating rainbow of garishness. One of my brothers noted that the tree smelled a bit like a TV dinner. We all took a sniff and agreed that, instead of natural pine scent, the tree exuded the undeniable odor of thin aluminum being cooked to temperatures just short of bursting into flame.
Sometime after “A Charlie Brown Christmas” aired, the tree was discreetly tucked away in Grandpa’s attic and not talked about in polite company.
Most of the year, I am a reasonable person. But during the holidays, I am a total sap for tradition. I love hanging the lights on the windows; inside with suction cup hooks to avoid ladders. I love pulling out the same ornaments year after year; the beautiful blown glass heritage ones and the plastic Dollar Tree ones a child chose with allowance money. I even love fruitcake; not the greasy candied fruit kind but English-style ones with dried currants, raisins, cherries and nuts.
And so this year, I considered bringing back ye old Midwestern aluminum Christmas tree!