Monday, December 22, 2008

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree, How Aluminum Are Thy Branches?: Holiday Memories from the 60's

Oh so natural... and dazzling to the eye!

As the Kelly family prepared for Christmas this year, decorating the house, putting up three of our customary seven Christmas trees (that whole crisis with Ryan's leg threw us off a bit!), I couldn't help but think of those magical holiday seasons of my childhood. Those first impressionable years of my life -- 1959 thru 1968 mostly -- seemed to be the most memorable. The wonder of Christmas in all its glory was fresh and untainted back then... especially to a wide-eyed child of my generation.

Perhaps one of the most lasting memories I have of those Christmas seasons I spent with my mother, father, and little brother in our rental house in West Nashville back in the mid-60's was our incredible aluminum Christmas tree. While many families remained true to the traditional pine or blue spruce, we ventured forward into the future! I remember the day Daddy brought home that skinny white box and opened it up. Inside was a segmented silver-painted wooden pole, a silver tripod stand, and dozens upon dozens of brown paper tubes. Within those tubes were the sparkling silver branches which sprang forth, full and perfectly-formed, when you pulled them from their paper sleeves. Once the branches were anchored securely into the angled slots of the tree trunk, it made for six feet of gleaming, glittering "space tree" that would have made the engineers at NASA proud!

There was one drawback to the aluminum Christmas tree, however. You could not string conventional Christmas lights on it. Due to the very real danger of using electric lights on the highly-conductive aluminum branches, another avenue for tree-lighting had to be found. That problem was resolved via the rotating "color wheel" invented to illuminate the "Tree-of-the-Future". I remember my brother and I lying on the living room floor for what seemed to be hours, watching the color wheel revolve as it changed the aluminum tree from bright red, to yellow, to blue, to green, then back through the spectrum once again. Our attention spans must have been cast in concrete and steel back then, if such a simple spectacle entertained us for such a long period of time. Incidently, I bought a cheap retro aluminum tree last year, with an equally cheap color wheel, believing that my children would be just as enthralled by its cascades of wonderous color as I had been as a child. They watched it for perhaps the first two go-arounds, then bored to tears, left that spinly little aluminum tree all to itself, to change color without witness. If mine and my brother's attention spans were ironclad, then those possessed by today's kids must consist of PlayDoh and Elmer's Glue.

There were alot of tacky Christmas decorations back then. Tacky but immensely popular. Bubble lights. Cardboard chimneys. Glitter-painted glass balls. Those pointy-nosed pixies with their long legs tucked beneath their crossed arms. Garishly painted plastic Santas that stood sentry on your lawn. The list was endless! But we enjoyed them all and relished their bright and gaudy brilliance.

Tons of tacky, tasteless stuff for your Holiday Pleasure!

One thing I remember from those early days of my childhood was our yearly trips to Harvey's Department Store to see Santa Claus. During those pre-mall days, you had to venture to the very heart of downtown to do your Christmas shopping and, for us, that meant enduring the hustle and bustle of Church Street in downtown Nashville. For a small boy, it seemed like a really big deal. My father would parallel-park his sharp-finned, two-toned '56 Chevy and we would enter Harvey's through the front entrance. Fred Harvey had opened the department store back in 1946 and was a first-class entrepreneur in every sense of the word. His way of doing business was to dazzle and impress, even if he did go a little overboard sometimes. His store was decorated with carrousel horses, fun house mirrors, and even a monkey bar on the top floor (no, not what you find on the playground... a snack bar with real monkeys on display. It was even rumored that Mr. Harvey would let the monkeys loose and let them run rampant through the store if business was down!)

The REAL Santa Claus spent his time at Harvey's!
Mr. Harvey also put out full-page ads in the newspaper announcing that the REAL Santa Claus was at Harvey's. That put all the other stores featuring St. Nick in somewhat of a predicament since everyone in town took Mr. Harvey's word for gospel. Kids and their parents would flock to Harvey's Department Store in droves, to the toy department and the most elaborately-decorated Santa station in the mid-South. I remember Santa sitting on his velvet throne, offering a friendly knee to sit on, a patient ear for your rambling list of toys wanted, and a candy cane when you left. The entire experience reminds me of the Santa Claus scene in the movie A Christmas Story, but without the big red slide. There were still plenty of terrified, shrieking children though. That was always a big kick for me as a seven or eight year old... to see how many little kids suffered trauma and emotional scarring simply because their parents dragged them, kicking and screaming, to sit in the lap of an overweight, bearded stranger wearing white fur and a blood red suit.

Fred Harvey's gift to Nashville... the Centennial Park Nativity

But the Christmas celebration at his downtown department store wasn't Mr. Harvey's only holiday contribution to Music City. As a gift to the people of Nashville, he set up an annual Nativity scene on the lawn of nearby Centennial Park, near the steps of the full-sized replica of the Greek Parthanon. Between the years of 1953 and 1967, this full-sized nativity, complete with human figures, camels, livestock, and palm trees -- all hand-crafted and imported from Italy -- graced the park, drawing thousands of holiday visitors.

The Centennial Park Nativity at Night!

I remember we visited the Nativity at least once during each holiday season. We would park our car near the Parthenon and, bundled in heavy winter coats, scarfs, and ear-flap caps, walk the length of the display in utter awe. For a child it was really something to see... the birth of Jesus depicted in such a way, the figures illuminated with lights that faded from white to blue to red, while a sound system softly played Christmas carols. I remember afterward, we would drive to the Krystal's on Charlotte Avenue, sit at the counter, and have some of those little square hamburgers that smelled deliciously of mustard and grilled onions. Yum! Sometimes we'd get home in time to watch shows like A Charlie Brown Christmas or The Grinch Who Stole Christmas on our black and white TV.

Then came Christmas morning! Oh to find a G.I. Joe standing, poised and ready for action, beneath the Christmas tree... along with an olive-drab jeep with a matching trailer, bazooka cannon, and working spotlight! A boy of six years old could ask for no better! And during those years of holiday joy in that little house on Elkins Avenue, Santa brought a platoon of Joes in various stages of military costume and gear. But after we moved from Nashville and out to the country, it seemed like we left a little of that Christmas magic behind. We rarely made it to Harvey's Department Store for the annual celebration and, after 1967, the Centennial Park Nativity was no longer put on display when exposure to weather had taken its toll on the figures.
And, eventually, our old tree was replaced by a newer, greener one -- still fake, but much more life-like and traditional. A new era of childhood holidays followed, but they were never quite the same. They never sparkled and shined the way they had with every hue of the rainbow blazing from the silvery branches of that wonderous aluminum Christmas tree.

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