For me, Christmas would not be Christmas without a Christmas tree. For as long as I can recall, there has been a tree in my home on Christmas Day.
As it is but a few days until Christmas, I suspect most of you who observe Christmas with a tree have one fully decorated in your home. Others traditionally decorate the tree on Christmas Eve.
After our tree was decorated, stared at it for a few moments, allowing my mind to travel back to memories I fondly recall of purchasing and decorating the family’s Christmas tree, back in the day.
I have mentioned that many have artificial trees. I am not ashamed to tell you I have had an artificial tree for more than 35 years. My 35-year-old tree presents some challenges. The early artificial trees coded each individual branch that was placed according to the codes. So there you were, spending at least an hour putting all those branches on the correct rows. Now you may wonder why, in all these years, the same tree remains in my home. Each year, after it is taken down, there is a discussion of discarding it and purchasing a new tree, one easier to put up and decorate, if decorations are needed at all. We continue to hold on to this tree because it is a great-looking tree; a tree that is hard to distinguish from a live one. But, without question, my Christmas tree today is quite different from those in my home back in the day.
When I was a child there were no artificial Christmas trees. The only ones I recall were three- or four-feet tall aluminum trees illuminated by a revolving spotlight. Anyone still using one of these aluminum trees today is not only from back in the day, but is still living back in the day. My father would go out days before Christmas to purchase our tree. This was a big deal. We lived in a home with a living room ceiling that was at least 16 feet high. We always had a tree that touched the ceiling; this was an absolute requirement for my siblings and me. However, my father came home one year with a tree that could not have been more than eight feet tall. He became upset with us because we took it back to exchange it for one the size we were accustomed to seeing in our living room. Back in the day, most trees were transported home tied to the top of one’s automobile. Very few establishments delivered trees. Therefore, returning the small tree was a matter of getting out my wagon to transport it and pick up a new one. This was a real challenge, as only the base of the tree could fit on the wagon; the front section was held by several of us as we traveled back to the corner lot where trees were sold.
You are definitely from back in the day if your purchase of a tree today involves waiting until the 11th hour. Please do not tell me that you wait until 11 o’clock on Christmas Eve to get your tree. At this hour, trees cost a lot less and in some cases, they are free because they are about to be thrown away.
A friend told me that years ago, she routinely went around on Christmas Eve late at night to look for a free tree. One year she found all of the unsold trees cut into pieces by the vendors. She had to take several branches home and nail them to a pole to have a Christmas tree that year. This ended her practice of the 111th-hour search for a cheap or free tree.
Other memories involve nailing the green wooden stand to the tree and the difficulty in getting your tree to stand securely. It was not unusual after the tree had been completely decorated to find it lying on its side. I can still see my father tying a rope around the tree and securing it to the mantle in several places. Do you also recall these live Christmas trees drying out and becoming fire hazards? How did we keep it moist? A small can was placed on the stand before the tree was attached. We then put water with sugar or maple syrup in the container. Did this actually keep the tree moist? I do not know, but I can tell you that many people did this, back in the day.
Decorating a Christmas tree was a real challenge in the past. Most of us remember the fights and fusses we had over our lights. How many times did you put your lights on the tree only to find out they would not work? We had those large, candle-shaped, lights known for the entire string malfunctioning if just one bulb was bad. A string of lights did not automatically blink. In order to get them to blink, you had to purchase a “blinker.” Back then, lighting a Christmas tree had only two options – on and off. Do you recall the lights with a long stem with a liquid that bubbled once they became heated?
Let me remind you that there were no Black ornaments when many of us were children. The first Black ornament I recall seeing was after Black became beautiful. It was in the ’60s when everyone had to have a Black angel on the top of the tree. Before then, a star went there. Today, however, every Black household with a Christmas tree must have at least one Black ornament; and that is usually a Black angel at the top of the tree.
Back in the day, fathers did not always participate in decorating the tree, but it was generally a tradition for the man of the house to place the star or Black angel on the top of the tree.
Do you recall making paper Christmas decorations in school? How many of you cut strips from construction paper to make circles that would be interlocked and placed on the tree like a chain? Do any of you still have the paper star, bell or tree you cut out in school some 40 or 50 years ago? Maybe some of you still hold to the Victorian tradition of stringing popcorn around your tree. There may be those who still place cotton balls on their tree to simulate snow. Perhaps you still spray your tree with a white substance from an aerosol can to give the appearance of snow. Or maybe you still place tinsel, referred to by many as icicles, on the branches. No tree was complete without tinsel back in the day.
Christmas ornaments in the past were very fragile. You dared not let them hit the floor, as they would shatter. Sometimes paper clips or hairpins were used to secure the ornaments to the tree. These ornaments were uniquely decorated, and are highly collectible today. There is just something very special about a Christmas tree decorated with these types of bulbs. Regarding tree-trimming, I disappeared when it came to putting angel hair on. While it looked great on the tree, to touch it meant you would be itching for a day or two. My oldest sister placed it on the tree while wearing gloves. If you do not know anything about angel hair, believe me, you are not missing anything. It is from back in the day and should remain there.
For many of us who struggled in the past with life in a segregated America, the thought of a white Christmas was not in keeping with the Afrocentric views and traditions that we discovered during the civil rights struggles of the ’60s. It may interest you to know that it is possible now to dream of a Black Christmas. While not related to the Black experience, there is a tree that was a big rage in Europe in 2005. It is a Black Christmas tree. This tree was new in the United States for 2006 and is still sold today. It has shiny black needles that glisten with reflections from clear lights and silver decorations. We, as Black Americans, should claim this tree as our own. A Black Christmas tree would enable us to have a Black Christmas; something none of us could dream of, back in the day.
Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at email@example.com or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146.