What is Christmas without a tree? When I was young we had only live trees of the spruce verity with short needles about ½ to ¾ inches long. And they had a fantastic smell, but they shed, and I mean shed a lot! I suspect they were actually cut sometime the previous May, because by the time we got them up and decorated a mere soft breeze would defoliate a branch. We fed them water, and they drank it like a camel preparing to cross the Sahara, but it did no discernable good. Obviously, all that dryness meant they were a fire hazard, but amazingly, I don’t recall any tree fires, although I am sure we had a few around Kenner.
Some of my friends and relations were on a different schedule, but it was always two weeks before Christmas when we put up the tree at my house. In those days the lights were the large bulb verity. The bulb was about the size of a thumb. And naturally, they burned out. That meant we spent the first hour or so of decorating dedicated to finding burned out bulbs and replacing them. Some of those lights were bubble lights with the “candle-like” tube of colored water above the base in which bubbles rose when they were turned on. Bubble lights were, and remain, my favorites.
The lights went on first careful we did not knock off any of the needles on the nearing-ready-for-defoliation branches. That was followed by the decorations. In those days, the decorations were brightly colored globes of some design made out of glass thin enough to crumble at the slightest provocation. Don’t even think about one surviving a drop on the floor. We also had some made to resemble birds with long bristle-like tails. These we clipped to the top of the branch, unless we wanted the dead bird effect, in which we clipped them to the bottom.
That was followed by the ubiquitous “icicles,” thin strips of a foil we draped over the branches to resemble (if you had a really good imagination) icicles hanging from the tree. Later these were made from some metalized thin vinyl material, which didn’t tarnish like the earlier real metal ones. True patrons of the icicle art form added them to the ends of the branches only a strand or two at a time. For me, that lasted all of about two or three branches, and I would look at the gazillion branches eagerly awaiting their custom draped icicles and decide another method was called for. By then I was getting bored with the tree-decorating thing, anyway. That called for “rapid-deployment.” That meant standing back and throwing handfuls of icicles at the tree letting them land where they may. My mother didn’t much care for that method.
In the early post-war years we carefully removed the icicles after Christmas and stored them for use next year. As we prospered, the old icicles became expendable (and tarnished) to be replaced the following year. What? Maybe a buck and a half cost total?
The tree was topped, in those days, with a spire of sorts made of the same fragile glass as the aforementioned decorations. I don’t recall very many angels up there.
In the mid-late fifties, various simulations of “snow” began to appear for decoration. The most effective came in an aerosol can. It took a true snow artist to get this stuff to look real. Mostly, it looked like lots of bird droppings on the branches and over-sprayed walls around the tree. I never much cared for it, although applying it was fun.
Around the same time, they started selling painted trees. We went several years with silver trees. But the Lagasse family across the street remained “true” to the Christmas tree spirit and bought only green painted trees. The green was so dark it was almost black (Goth tree?) and only vaguely resembled real tree color, but they seemed to like it. In addition to silver and green, you could get white or even pink (a popular color in the fifties but a sacrilege for a Christmas tree). The paint increased the flammability of the tree but helped hold the dry needles on—oh, for perhaps an extra day or so.
Flocked trees came after that, but only “rich people” bought those. Flocked was not allowed in our house by my tight-fisted father. One of his few wins over my mother.
With fragile trees and families full of rough and tumble boys, naturally, there were accidents. My cousin Bobby got a trampoline for Christmas one year and somehow Boo, his dad (Santa), managed to fit that assembled trampoline in the house more-or-less “under” the tree. Of course, you had to crawl under the trampoline to get to any of the other presents. Not patient enough to wait for Boo to disassemble the trampoline, move it outside, and reassemble it, Bobby, of course true to his nature, tried it out in the house. After he hit his head on the ceiling a few times, he did an unanticipated “dismount” and landed in the Christmas tree for a combined judges score of -1.2.
And defoliated the tree!
One year the day before Christmas Eve, the tree at Manard and Elton Lagasse’s house decided to “faint.” Clutching its little tree heart, it fell over dead—well, maybe it just realized it had been dead for months?
I have no idea what happened, and Manard and Elton weren’t talking. Not a needle was left on that tree. All that remained were bare sticks grotesquely reaching out for water, and the presents under it were just a lumpy pile of needles. Henry Lagasse had to scramble and buy a new tree on Christmas Eve.
After Christmas when the spell of the Christmas tree had worn off, I used to enjoy running the branches between my finger and thumb and listen to the patter of needles hitting the floor. By the time we took the fire hazard down after New Years, most of the needles were on the floor. When MB finally dragged the dead carcass out the door, it left a trail of its remaining needles as a reminder of its glorious past. And out came the Hoover.
Then along came the ultimate answer to the tree defoliation problem—aluminum Christmas trees! No lights on these “high-tech” trees. Underneath you had a disk of rotating red, green, and blue gels that a light projected through and colored the highly reflective aluminum tree “needles.” But it wasn’t real and smelled like metal instead of pine. And that rotating/projecting colored light thingie always made an annoying squeaking sound as it turned, industrializing the whole Christmas mood. Some considered the aluminum tree the height of tree sacrilege, but my parents were the neighborhood trendsetters (Snork!), and we got one. Eventually my grandmother gave in and bought one, but no one else did that I recall. I think the Manards and the Lagasses secretly looked down their collective noses at our “apostate” Christmas tree.
For all their problems, it wasn’t Christmas without a tree. I remember only one Christmas without one, and that one was in 1968 at Lackland AFB in Texas when I was going through Air Force Basic Training. And it didn’t feel like Christmas that year, at all. Otherwise, I spent many hours lying on the sofa in the living room just staring at that tree with all the other lights off except the tree lights (even the aluminum tree / squeaking light projector years) and dreaming of what it would look like Christmas morning. It was the most beautiful sight in the entire world for a boy growing up in Kenner.