My parents married early in the Space Age. Kennedy was in office, and during that same year the US and the USSR combined for 81 orbital launches. Space was the buzz, and everybody got in on the action. Everything from cars to bicycles to bras sported missile-influenced designs. This was the year that The Jetsons debuted.
So that December when my parents went to buy their very first Christmas tree, they went modern: a shiny, silver aluminum six footer. It was called a “pom pom tree” due to the explosion of aluminum strips at the end of each branch. My father also bought a string of those old, big Christmas lights, and he painted the wire silver so that it wouldn’t stand out against the fancy, space-aged tree. And that was that: two teenaged newlyweds and their rocket tree.
The next few years brought three children into their orbit, all in the traditional, non-space age way. There was a flood in there somewhere, too, that wiped out the young couple’s meager belongs, but the shiny tree somehow survived.
Their children attended preschool, kindergarten, and grammar school. They brought home ornaments made from pipe cleaners, margarine tubs, and glitter; construction paper, Cool Whip lids, and cotton balls; toilet paper tubes and googly eyes. Each ornament found a home on the aluminum tree, even after the construction paper faded and the google eyes fell off.
This was the Christmas tree of my earliest childhood memories, though by then it was a decade old. Kennedy was long gone by then, as was the novelty of space flight. My favorite part of unpacking the decorations each year was straightening out the wads of newspaper used for packing and marveling at how old they were.
We lived in a tiny house on the working class side of Denver, a house so small there was no room for a hallway: a simple, basic house with heat registers in the floor and a service porch in the back. My favorite features were the towering catalpa tree in the front yard and the mail slot by the front door that opened into the wall. Mail tumbled down inside the wall and appeared inside the house behind a little door. Hot Wheels did, too, and anything else my tiny hands could stuff through the slot.
Next to the shiny tree stood the television, with its Rankin-Bass and Peanuts Christmas specials. I panicked after watching Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
“Why are you crying?” my mother asked.
“We don’t have a chimney,” I said.
“That’s okay. Santa comes in through the mail slot.”
“He can do that?”
“He can do anything,” my mother said. “He’s Santa.”
The big daddy of all holiday specials was A Charlie Brown Christmas. Charlie Brown’s disappointment with the over-commercialization of the holiday, as represented by soulless, colorful, aluminum trees, was the cartoon’s big selling point for me. At my youngest I was thrilled to see our pom pom tree claim such an important place in my favorite Christmas special, but later I sided with Charlie Brown. Christmas was best when green, organic, and pine-scented. Silver was tacky.
But for now I still loved our shiny, metal tree. Beneath its branches each year appeared Evel Knievel toys, race tracks, and Mego action figures; model kits, BB guns, and Vertibirds. One year I received a junior chemistry set that included strips of magnesium that flared bright white when burned. They looked like the curled bits of aluminum on the Christmas tree’s branches, so I plucked a few and tried to burn them.
We moved to a different house in a different state with neither chimney nor mail slot, but Santa still managed to find a point of egress. My parents decided it was time for a change, so they went down to the local Sears and purchased a green bottle brush tree. They purchased strings of miniature lights, too, the old-style bulbs a faux pas in the shagadelic mid-seventies.
For a few years the aluminum tree was relocated to a spot in our finished basement, a space used by my sisters for making out with pimply boyfriends and by me for epic tennis racquet recreations of KISS concerts and blanket fort sleepovers. One year we were well past Easter before we conceded to my mother’s demands to take that tree down.
Not long after that our nuclear family hit its half life. My space-aged sister married and moved out. My other sister followed a couple of years later, and I moved away a couple more years after that. The silver tree never left the attic rafters again.
Twenty years passed, and my sister sent me a photo of my two siblings and me in front of the aluminum tree. We were lined up in age and height order, my sisters wearing matching outfits. I can’t be more than four years old in the photo, and although I don’t remember the toy that I’m holding everything else rushed back: the tree, the television, the magic mail slot. I remembered scanning the Denver sky for signs of Rudolph’s nose, and my parents’ smiles when I sprinted for my race car bed after spotting a flashing red radio tower.
I called my mother and rattled off as many memories of the metallic tree as I could conjure. A few weeks later a box arrived: The shiny tree forgotten in my parents’ attic.
The pom pom tree is in my office this year, decorated with big lights and glass balls. Some people find it retro-cool, others think it’s some kind of ironic hipster joke. Occasionally an older person will reminisce about his or her own space age Christmas childhood.
One friend asked, “Who in the world keeps an artificial tree for fifty years?” My mother and I do, because we know the beautiful, shiny truth: Our is the most sincere tree in any forest, aluminum or otherwise. Take that, Charlie Brown.