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Nothing Says Christmas like Aluminum

When I was a kid, I loved the fresh Christmas trees my parents put up, but I also wished that we could have a lovely space-age aluminum tree like the one my grandparents used, all nice and shiny, illuminated with a rotating light disc. It's one of the Christmas traditions that seem ancient now, but only began after World War II. Sarah Archer is the author of a new book, Mid-Century Christmas: Holiday Fads, Fancies, and Fun from 1945 to 1970. She explains where those those aluminum trees came from.

The company that produced the most aluminum for the war effort was Alcoa, but there were also some smaller companies, too, many of which were based in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, of all places, which was one of the big aluminum capitals of North America. Like a lot of mid-century Christmas items, including the acrylic rubber that coats Christmas lights cords, aluminum trees came from thinking about repurposing a material produced for the military. The aluminum strips that were used to make the trees were originally designed for something called chaff, which was sprinkled over enemy territories to scramble radar because the little pieces of metal would diffuse the signal.

Many 1950s aluminum tree producers used Alcoa branding. The exterior of the box would say, “We proudly use Alcoa aluminum.” You could put ornaments on these trees, but one of the challenges of decorating them was not getting electrocuted, which was mentioned prominently in the how-to pamphlet that came with the tree. Because it was not safe to put electric lights on the metal, the companies distributing the trees would sell a rotating lamp that would shine different-colored lights on the tree to bathe it in magenta or purple.

That's not the only Christmas tradition that arose from the postwar Cold War era. Read about how our modern Christmas celebrations were shaped at Collectors Weekly.


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I grew up in my grandparents' Italian restaurant. One of my earliest memories is helping my grandfather assemble the tree. It was made of wooden dowels painted white, and the branches were aluminum strips twisted in hard wires that jammed into holes in the dowels. All the branches were the same length, but the holes were at more and more vertical angles as you went up the dowels, to make the whole thing tree-shaped. The branches wouldn't go in unless you pointed them exactly the right direction, and that was somehow /great/. Every branch was like /yeah! that way!/ But the best part was a little spotlight that you put on the floor in the corner of the display window at the front of the restaurant and pointed at this space-age, shiny tree, and there was a four-color disk that turned on a rotisserie motor in front of the light, and I would sit there and stare at that light and watch the colors change, and listen to the motor grind and buzz, and I'd count the seconds it took to go all the way around to red again, because it sped up and slowed down seemingly at random. And I'd think about it and about what else you could point the light at, and wouldn't it be great if the light in the kitchen was like that? and the back porch light? and the car lights? That's Christmas.

A couple of weeks ago I was in a store with Juanita and they had laser things that you'd put on the lawn and point at the house to make tiny dim points of red and green light jump around everywhere, and for some reason it /didn't even remind me of the rotisserie light thing at all/. I didn't think about it until just now. It's like so much of the modern world: frantic and fast and tiny and dim and cold and easy to look away from. I don't know-- maybe I'd like it more if it had a noisy motor struggling in it, or if it got hot enough to burn your hand, or if it required some assembly.

I think you were right to wish for a shiny artificial tree that can be put away in a small box and taken out year after year forever. It's prettier. It's not wasteful. I mean, /Helicopter logging of Christmas tree farms?/
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