#christmas #1950s #decorating #christmastree
My earliest memories of Christmas, reinforced by family movies, include decorating the Christmas tree, a task that sign. “You can bring the tree in now, Daddy,” mother would call after she had spread an oilcloth on the carpet in the living room where it was to be placed.
In the 1940’s, Christmas trees were not the full, manicured beauties displayed on the sales lots these days. Spindly, with wide gaps between the branches, trees were bought with an eye for their bad side—the side that did not fill out as completely because it was away from the sun as it grew. The bad side was always turned toward the wall.
My dad left in its stand on the back porch for at least a day so that the limbs would fall naturally into place before we brought it into the house.
“Let it stand for a few hours,” mother directed once the tree was inside. “The branches will open up to the heat.” I could feel the cold trapped in the branches when I reached in to the trunk. Even in the warm living room, the interior of the tree remained cold for a couple of hours after spending days in the sub-freezing South Dakota winter air.
Our Christmas decorations were stored in Jippy’s Box. Jippy, long deceased, was mother’s first pet Boston Bull Terrier. I don’t know how the box became so named, but it was as large as a blanket chest with a hinged lid and four wooden casters that screeched whenever the box was pushed across a bare floor.
The lights came first, old fashioned strings that were wired in series so that if one light burned out the entire string went dark, and the search was on to find the offending dud. My dad, who took pride in a host of small inventions, realized that the strings of C-6, 15-volt bulbs were manufactured for 120 volt household circuits. 120 volts divided by 15 volts, he calculated, came out exactly to 8, or the number of lights on the string. The individual lamps, being mass produced, varied widely in brightness depending upon the thickness of the filament. Lights with thin filaments burned most brightly. They also also failed to last as long as others on the string. Thus, the lamp with the thinnest filament would burn out first, and the tedious search would be on again to get the string back on line.
Dad’s solution was simple. He cannibalized one string for its sockets and spliced two additional sockets into each remaining string so that the total number of lamps was increased from 8 to 10 and the voltage to each lamp was reduced to 12 volts. The lamps lasted much longer. The splicing job, once done, became permanent, and the splices were wrapped tightly with black electrician’s tape, something to which mother objected. As a result, Dad always made sure the splices were shoved deeply into the branches and out of sight.
Dad would check each string before placing it on the tree. The red, yellow, blue, green, and white lights would glow like a bouquet in his fist and the season was underway for me with the first string to come to life.
The first ornament on the tree was a large lighted white cross mounted at the very top. Fashioning a coat hanger into the straight wire with a hook at one end, Dad tied the wire to the spike at the top of the tree to reinforce it so it could support the cross. A cross wasn’t liturgically appropriate for the season which was of no concern to my parents. The cross was the symbol of their Catholic faith. It represented their unquestioned commitment to the Church and its teachings.
With the cross in place, Dad laced the rest of the strings around the tree. “Be sure to put a few lights in
close to the trunk,” mother would direct. “I like to see them deep in the branches.” 30 to 40 lamps were attached to the branches before lighting the tree by plugging an extension cord into a wall socket.
“It’s too busy on the one side, Daddy,” mother would observe. “Can you get more lights down toward the bottom?” Dad would make the adjustments, making sure that too many lights of the same color did not appear close to one another.
Dad’s next task was to trim the uppermost branches. He placed delicate glass birds that clung to the branches by clips on their feet. The birds perched so that they looked adoringly up at the cross, directing viewers’ eyes toward the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection and His redemption of fallen mankind.
Someone eventually turned on the 78-rpm record player.
Faith of our fathers, living still,
In spite of dungeon, fire and sword;
From the way Bing Crosby sang it, I knew that somewhere the non-Catholics had imprisoned hundreds of men like my dad for no reason at all except the prisoners believed in the teachings of the Church. Those men would stand united against all the horrible things that were being done to them, and we should all feel joy knowing their resolve to endure. Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, and Edmund Gwen were as good as priests, maybe better, and they were as much a part of Catholicism as the Pope himself.
Under mother’s direction, my brother, my sister, and I completed trimming the tree one ornament at a time. Dad had shown us how to extract the wire clip from the neck of the ornament, slip the clip over the branch, and pinching the two ends together, reinsert it back into the collar of the ornament. The ornaments clung snugly to the branches.
The tinsel was the final touch. Tinsel in the 1940’s was metallic, not the flimsy vinyl stuff produced today. Mother stored the tinsel each year, a handful at a time, in the Sears and Roebuck Christmas catalog that was as thick as the dictionary. Mother and I would start at the top of the tree hanging one strand of tinsel at a time, evenly spacing each from the other, and draping them so that the entire length—sometimes a foot and a half—would fall into the place. Tinsel filled in the gaps in the branches. At night, when the room was dark and the tree lighted, it flickered and shimmered with reflected light.
The nativity scene was finally placed at the base of the tree. Our nativity scene was a glazed pottery piece with the Child Jesus in the center and Joseph and Mary on either side huddled against the cold and wind in the ramshackle stable. It would be years before I discovered that it never snowed in Bethlehem nor was it likely to freeze there. But the tree was up for the season, and it would remain the center of our family observance until January 12—the Feast of the Epiphany.
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