The other evening. our granddaughter, Sami Staskus, was telling me how she had bought and is in the process of decorating her very own Christmas Tree. Congratulations to her. This is quite a milestone! That conversation caused me to reminisce about my early memories of Christmas trees.
Surprisingly, the Christmas trees and the traditions regarding them have changed very little since the 40s and 50s. Except that in the 1940s, all Christmas trees were real. Artificial trees did not become widely available until the late 1950s.
While Christmas trees themselves have varied very little over the years, the decorations that we placed on the trees did change over the past sixty years. In the 1940s. I remember that a few of my friends and relatives still decorated their trees with real, wax candles which, despite the serious fire hazard, they lit on Christmas Eve and/or Christmas day. However, most people by then used electric Christmas lights to decorate their trees. Because of the fire hazard caused by Christmas lights on a dry pine tree, many people (including Pat’s family) did not put any lights on their trees. Others turned the lights on for only a short period of time and made sure that someone was in the room whenever their Christmas tree was lit. In an obvious effort to cause people to discard their old but perfectly functional Christmas tree lights and buy new ones, Christmas light manufactures were constantly introducing new types of tree lights – white or clear bulbs as well as multi-colored ones, larger bulbs, smaller bulbs, etc. I also remember twinkle lights, bulbs depicting Santa, the nativity, candy canes, Christmas cookies etc. One of the more popular type of lights, for several years, was a set called Bubble Lights (above). These lights utilized candle shaped bulbs. These bulbs were filled with an oily liquid that when heated by the light caused bubbles to run up and down in the transparent candle stick.
The decorations used on the Christmas trees did vary over time. While most people used hallow, painted, glass balls on their trees, others decorated their trees with actual candy canes, fruit, nuts and cookies which they snacked on for as long as the tree was up. Artificial snow was available loose or later in spray cans that people could use in an unsuccessful attempts to make a tree look like it was snow-covered. Tinsel or silver ice-cycles made from silver foil or silver coated paper was very popular when we were growing up. After the tree was fully decorated, tinsel was strategically placed on the tree to provide the illusion that it was covered with ice-cycles. On the top of each tree, there was always an ornament depicting either the star of Bethlehem or an angel in flight announcing the birth of baby Jesus.
When I was growing up, my father ran his funeral business out of our home. Until I was 13, when we moved to a larger home which accommodated separate funeral facilities and separate family living facilities, he used the family’s living room for funerals. As a result, for fear of having to take it down before Christmas, we never put up a Christmas tree until Santa came in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve to install and decorate the cut pine tree that had been sitting in our back yard all week. Some years the tree stayed up until after the New Year. Other times, if my dad had to use the living room for a funeral, it could be down the day after Christmas.
For years, in deference to my younger brother, we waited for Santa to trim the tree on his Christmas Eve rounds. Later, after we moved to a home that had separate facilities for my dad’s business, it became a Fleming custom for the entire family to participate in trimming the tree on the Sunday before Christmas. This was a tradition that I did not look forward to participating in. My mother was the architect, producer and director of the Fleming Christmas tree decorating project and in that capacity, she was a very demanding perfectionist who with an eye for detail micro-managed the project. While we trimmed the tree, she would sit in a chair continually giving orders to the three kids doing the actual work. “Put that red ornament right there”, “No, No a little higher”, “Move the green ball a little to the right” she would order, directing precisely where every ornament should be placed. Most ornaments were re-positioned at least twice while many had been moved four or five times before we finished.
When it came to “her Christmas Tree”, my mother demanded perfection and usually got it. One year, after a particularly intense decorating session, she sat and looked at the tree for the longest time giving instructions for us to make minor adjustments. Finally, she shook her head and said: “That tree is just not right. Take all the decorations off. I am going to take that one back and get a new one” she barked. So, we proceeded to take down every ornament that minutes before we had meticulously placed on of the tree. She then marched, with the tree in hand, down to the nearby Christmas tree lot and exchanged trees.
She is probably the only person in history who ever returned a cut Christmas tree to a tree lot.
After Pat and I married, our first tree was a silver foil, tinsel tree which we trimmed with blue ornaments and illuminated with a blue spot light. That simple tree was the centerpiece of the Christmas decorations in our first apartment. We spent that first Christmas with that tree and our Air Force friends and neighbors. Together with them had our first Christmas dinner in the base mess hall. It was decorated very nicely and the meal was surprisingly good. Pat really enjoyed that Christmas dinner which was the one and only time she ever ate in a USAF mess hall making her a true Air Force wife.
After we had kids and were in our own house, Pat and I started getting real, cut trees. However, our original silver tree continued to serve us for another 20 years by standing in the big, front, picture windows that we had in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Canada. Putting it in the window allowed passersby on the street to see it as the centerpiece of our outside Christmas decorations. When the kids were little we waited to trim the real tree until they were in bed and sound asleep on Christmas Eve. Along with trimming the tree on Christmas Eve we also always had toys to put together and Pat had to prepare for the big, formal dinner that we hosted for our families on Christmas day. Additionally, most years we had friends in on Christmas Eve for a Christmas drink and a light breakfast. Since one the attendees was a friend who happened to be a Presbyterian minister, our party never started until after Alan had finished conducting his 10 PM Christmas Eve service for his congregation. All of this led to some very late nights on Christmas Eve. Several times, we were still awake and finishing up when the kids woke up.
After we moved from Pennsylvania in 1967, we got some relief since we no longer hosted a Christmas Eve party or a big, family Christmas dinner. For our first few years in Virginia, when Jackie still believed, Santa continued to come and trim the tree while the kids slept on Christmas Eve. When the kids got old enough to know the truth about Saint Nick, we started trimming our tree a week or ten days before Christmas and made it a fun family project.
In the early 80s when the kids started going away to college and moving out, Pat and I reverted to where we started and again got an artificial tree. Subsequently, we had a succession of artificial trees with each new one getting smaller than the previous one.
Pat always loved Christmas trees. In 1983 when she was teaching kindergarten, she wrote a song about Christmas trees which her class sang to the tune of Edelweiss for all of the other students and their parents at the school’s annual Christmas recital. Pat was never happier or more proud than that night when the audience gave her and her song a standing ovation! The words,of Pat’s song which she called “Christmas Trees” are preserved below in her own hand writing,
Posted Christmas 2017
In Loving Memory Of
1936 – 2016