Decorating a Christmas tree in the 1930’s was a vastly different task than today’s decorating where many dollars can be spent on a single decoration. Now a days, trees have themes…colors, old fashioned items, naturals, contemporary, whimsical – the list goes on and on. But fifty years ago, decorating the Christmas tree was very different. While sitting on the back porch one day with family and friends, my dad and mother in law talked about “the good old days” and their memories of “puttin up the tree.”
We live in the South, so choices are limited when it comes to Christmas trees. A cedar tree was always chosen because of the smell. The tree would typically be chopped down with an ax from a pasture or wooded area.
The best cedar trees could be located in a pasture…didn’t necessarily have to be on one’s own property! No one minded a Christmas tree being cut. The task of chopping down the tree was usually handled by the one who was most eager to put a tree! In the 50’s, this task usually fell to me and my childhood friend who lived down the road. It was always nice to have a male to handle the chopping, but I did my share of dragging the thing to the house.
My dad said they usually nailed the tree to the floor or the wall. At first I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about, then he explained the tree was nailed to a crossboard and the board was nailed to the floor. Of course, there was no covering on the floor back then, so…why not. Otherwise, the tree was placed in a bucket or large can filled with rocks or dirt. Trees were not watered to keep them fresh, so they were usually only put up a few days before Christmas.
Decorations were sparse and consisted mainly of handmade items. Popcorn was strung with a needle and thread and used as a garland. Sometimes pinecones were used and paper decorations made with colors. Paper garland was made by cutting “tablet paper” into small strips and using “flour paste” to glue the strips together making a linking chain.
Lights didn’t come along in this family until much later, probably in the 50’s. My grandmother had a few Christmas decorations that were used for many many years. One was a red crepe paper fold out bell that was hung over the kitchen table each Christmas.
In grammar school, we always decorated a Christmas tree in each room. This was a small school and two grades were contained in each room. We made lots of paper decorations and paper chains, but the most fun part was making “snow” out of washing powder and water. This would be mixed together into a batter like consistency and then flung all over the tree. We thought it looked great and it was sure a lot of fun to do.
The first lights that I can remember on our tree at home were medium sized colored lights. One bulb could go out or become loose and the whole string would go out. Bubble lights were special too and I may be wrong, but seems like they made a little tinkling sound. We also used angel hair sometimes and this would give the lights a beautiful soft blurry glow. Icicles were gold, silver and sometimes blue and were saved from one year to the next. Sweet gum balls were sometimes painted gold or silver, or wrapped in scrap pieces of tin foil. Paper decorations were used, but we had advanced to construction paper now. Popcorn was strung and sometimes cranberries if they could be purchased. We did have a few glass balls, but not many.
Santa Claus came always on Christmas morning. He might make a rare visit on Christmas Eve if the family was away. My dad remembers getting an apple and orange, maybe some candy. On one occasion he remembers getting a rubber ball. My mother in law also remembers an apple and orange, candy, pecans and english walnuts. Occasionally they would get a small plastic toy such as a ring or watch. Stockings were hung on the mantle with nails and were socks of the tallest, largest person in the family, usually the dad! Toys would be tucked in the sock, then followed by fruits and candy. The Christmas mornings I remember were the ones when my Tiny Tears doll arrived one year and another when Santa left my treasured Daisy pump action B B gun.
Then one year, along came the most beautiful tree I had ever seen. A silver tinsel tree with a color wheel.
This tree was gorgeous. It was put together quickly and the color wheel assembled easily enough. The color wheel had a light bulb behind the color plate which turned and changed the tree from a beautiful blue, green, red to yellow. The tree was placed in front of the “picture window” for anyone driving by to see. I can still remember the quiet hum the wheel made with its changing colors.
“Puttin up the tree” is an old family tradition. Doesn’t matter if you use a real, plastic, or an aluminum tree; or whether you have priceless ornaments or ones made with construction paper and crayons. What’s important is creating memorable traditions with the people you love.