RINKER ON COLLECTIBLES: Christmas Memories–Including a Special Tribute to Decorations That Did Not Survive

Perhaps some of you remember a tree like this one from your own Christmas past. This 1960’s aluminum tree sold for $349.99 in July 2018.

The magic of Christmas has changed radically during the past 50 years.  When I tell my grandchildren what Christmas was like before the arrival of online shopping, shopping malls, Big Box stores, and a holiday shopping season that begins in early October rather than the day after Thanksgiving, I notice a blank “what is he talking about” look on their face.  Christmas for my grandchildren means gifts, money, and a squabble about at whose house Grandma and Grandpop will spend the holiday.

My wife Linda still dreams of recreating past Christmas memories with her family, an impossibility when one family lives in Massachusetts and the other in Texas and in-law considerations are involved.  My children live in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.  Rather than choose one over the other, we now spend Christmas and New Years at our condo in Altamonte Springs, Florida, or in Germany – another example of how Christmas magic has changed.

I lived during the Golden Age of Christmas, the 1940s through the 1960s.  My fondest Christmas memories date from this period.

                [Author’s Aside #1:  I fully understand the relative nature of the above paragraph.  Christmas memories are childhood, adolescent, and young adult focused.   Later 20th century generations are just as likely to view their Christmas memories as Golden.  I have my doubts about those who have grown up since 2000.]

“Rinker on Collectibles” focuses on objects, albeit I do share my personal memories from time to time to illustrate a point.  Growing up as part of a large nucleated family whose members lived in close proximity to one another resulted in numerous non-object holiday memories.  These stories belong in a memoir, not this column.

In the Rinker household as in those of most of my cousins, the day after Thanksgiving was devoted to getting the house ready for Christmas.  A “live” Christmas tree, whose lingering death was recorded by the quantity of falling needles each day during the month of December, served as the centerpiece; that is, until the arrival of my family’s first aluminum Christmas tree which is a story for a later column.

The ritualistic experience of shopping for a Christmas tree was exactly like Hollywood portrays it.  A few days before Thanksgiving, my father and I would visit a Christmas tree lot, usually sponsored by a local organization as a fund-raising effort.  Each year my father shared his insights into the merits of each type of tree.  Prospective candidates were held at the top and banged on the ground to determine the full extent of the branch spread.  Trunks and stems were examined to make certain the tree stood straight and tall.   The process was enhanced if the weather was cold and there was snow on the ground.  The tree was tied up with binder’s twine, transported home, and stored outside the side door until it was ready to be brought into the house.

My parents saved their Christmas tree lights, ornaments, and tinsel from one year to the next.  The boxes were stored in the cabinets beneath the basement work bench.   These were retrieved and taken up to the living room where the tree would be located.  The annual debate of whether the tree would stand independently or be incorporated as part of the Christmas platform ensued.

My parents bought the metal tree stand, a red bowl with a spike in the center and three green tripod legs, before my Christmas memories began.  I continued to use it through the 1970s.  Like so many objects, it disappeared at some point.  I cannot remember when.  I can buy a modern reproduction, but it would not be the same.

This vintage white Noma Christmas tree sold for $2500 in 2014.

Once the tree was placed in its stand, the decisions regarding its decoration began.  My parents had strands of Noma lights dating back into the late 1930s.  My father, who loved anything new, bought several strands of twinkle, candle, and plastic lights.  More often than not, we opted for the Noma lights.

                [Author’s Aside #2:  From the 1930s through the 1960s, Christmas lights were set up as a series circuit.  This means that if one bulb burnt out, the entire circuit went dark.  Those who never had the experience of tightening bulbs or replacing bulbs one at a time until a circuit was re-established do not know what they missed.  Language expressed during the process, especially by a frustrated male adult, expanded the vocabulary of many youngsters.   Today lights are set up in parallel or have bulbs with a shunt wire that keeps the string lit if a bulb fails.]

The lights were placed on the tree first.  Besides what style of strand to use, a decision was needed as to whether the bulbs would be of the same color or mixed and matched.

The placement of the ornaments occurred next.  A decision was required for the style and color of the round balls.  Older figural ornaments were grandfathered.  They always made an appearance on the tree.

Like many families, our ornaments were a combination of hand me-down cardboard, felt, or hand blown, commercially manufactured, and handmade.  Early in my childhood, my mother taught me how to make Moravian star ornaments, a skill I still practice.   Each year my mother and her sisters would visit a local printer to acquire paper edge scraps.  These came in a variety of colors and widths meaning a larger variety of sizes and color combinations were possible.  As a child of Depression Era and World War II parents, I grew up being taught the importance of thrift and the satisfaction of seeing something that one made being used.

                [Author’s Aside #3:  Those unfamiliar with the small folded paper Moravian Star ornaments are encouraged to visit the website Quilling Supply Plus  to learn about them.  I buy my Moravian Star kits from the Moravian Bookshop in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.]

Garlands, usually applied after the lights and bulbs were on the tree, were an important decorating tradition.  In the late 1940s and early 1950s, my family’s garlands were hand made.  I remember using a thick sewing needle to create strands of cranberries and popcorn, the latter popped on the kitchen stove and only some of which founds its way onto the strand.  It was a magical year when my mother brought home store-bought bags of color-frosted popcorn.

My Aunt Jeannette (kindergarten) and Aunt Ruth (second grade) were teachers.  As such, they had access to construction paper and white paste.  At least twice during my childhood, construction paper was cut into narrow strips and the strips formed into interlocking chain links.  Variety was achieved through the colors used and width of the strips.

Homemade pomander balls, made by poking a design into an orange with a toothpick and filling the holes with cloves, served first as ornaments and later as scents in clothes closets.  The Prosser sisters were bakers.  It was common for gingerbread figures to serve as ornaments.

Gingerbread figures were not the only Christmas tree edible.  The size, color, and shape of peppermint candy canes was cause for another annual debate.  My dad took a neutral stance with the exception of his rule that only one type of candy cane appeared each year.

The appearance of the bonbon dishes, one or two with a Christmas theme and the remainder Depression glass, was another Christmas tradition in my family.   Molded clear candy figurines and toys in green, red, and yellow, ribbon candy, and coal candy were seasonal favorites.

When I grew up, local confectionary stores were numerous.  Who cared about chocolate Easter bunnies?  Chocolate Santas were bigger.  So was the selection of chocolate molded figurines.

After the Christmas tree lights, ornaments, and tinsel along with the bonbon dishes were put away, the homemade ornaments, including the Moravian stars, and garlands were discarded.  Whatever candy was left vanished by mid-January.

The objects may have vanished but the memories have not, at least not until I die.  Do you have vanished objects Christmas stories?  Share them with me at harrylrinker@aol.com.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  Selected letters will be answered in this column.  Harry cannot provide personal answers.  Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned.  Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI  49512.  You also can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com.  Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.

You can listen and participate in WHATCHA GOT?, Harry’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show, on Sunday mornings between 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM Eastern Time.  If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT? streams live on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com.

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