The aluminum Christmas tree is to mid-century modern as the Christmas tree (in general) is to Christ; it’s a glorious representation of its time and creator.
Although tree worship is pagan in nature, the Christmas tree is anything but non-Christian. In 8th Century Germania, missionary St. Boniface cut down Donar’s oak, a tree worshiped by German pagans. He replaced it with an evergreen tree, and, in efforts to convert the pagans to Christianity, explained that the three points of the triangular shaped evergreen remind humanity of the holy trinity (God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Also, unlike deciduous trees which tend to be round or oval in shape, the triangular evergreen resembles an arrow, pointing to heaven.
St. Boniface was not the first to equate the evergreen with religious or spiritual representation. An evergreen plant replaces its leaves or needles continuously over the year. Thus, the plant is always green. This natural, perpetual animation may be why the Ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews believed that evergreen garlands and wreaths symbolized eternal life.
Bringing the tree to Christmas… In Medieval times mystery plays were preformed on December 24, the name day in some countries for Adam and Eve. The plays were presented around the paradise tree (from the Garden of Eden) which was decorated in apples (representing the forbidden fruit) and wafers (representing the Eucharist—redemption).
It is speculated that Protestant Christian reformer Martin Luther first added lighted candles to an evergreen tree in 16th century Germany. By the 18th century the custom had spread along the upper Rhineland of Germany but not in the more Roman Catholic lower Rhineland, as it was considered a protestant expression. However, around 1815, with the emigration of Prussian officials, the custom became more widespread. By the 19th century the Christmas tree had solidified itself in Germanic culture. And as Germans immigrated to America, they brought their traditions with them.
The atomic era and the space age launched during the 1950s in the United States, representing both developments in technologies and the general cultural attitude. Americans were happy to cast off the despondency of the Great Depression and the anxiety of World War II, and reel-in the excitement of economic boom and futuristic advancements.
Post war America had an extraordinary combination of factories in need of new, non-war productions; war developed technologies in need of new, domestic uses; returning soldiers ready to work and in need of jobs; and lots and lots of optimism. The possibilities were endless. The 1950s—the same remarkable decade that brought us advances that included polypropylene, the polio vaccine, and integrated circuits—gave us a new concept for one of the oldest symbols of the birth of Christ.
In 1958, Tom Gannon, toy sales manager for the Aluminum Specialty Company, was captivated by a metal tree in a store window during a visit to Chicago. He took the idea to his company engineers, in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. They developed a substantially cheaper tree—retailing for $25 compared to $85 for the tree Gannon saw in Chicago. Also, their tree was easier to mass produce, and easier for the consumer to put up and break down. Aluminum Specialty produced hundreds of thousands for the 1959 Christmas.
At first the buying public seemed confused by this product. Artificial trees were nothing new, but, since aluminum is an excellent conductor of electricity, there is a fire danger with stringing electric lights on these trees. So the idea of casting colored light from a rotating color wheel on the tree was introduced. With this added marketing novelty, in 1960 Aluminum Specialty’s tree was branded “Everglam” and sales took off, with millions being sold during the decade. On the flip side, sales of electric light strings actually took a brief nosedive.
Other aluminum manufactures followed suite, and trees of varying heights and colors were produced, silver being most prevalent. Yes, all was merry and bright…for about ten years. Sales took a downturn in the late sixties, and, according to the general internet consensus, who was to blame? Charlie Brown.
Yes, America’s favorite blockhead takes the wrap for putting an end to an icon mid-century fad. In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown went against popular opinion—of Lucy and the Peanuts gang—and bought a sad little “real Christmas tree” instead of a “big, shiny aluminum tree…maybe painted pink” for the Christmas play. At first he was ridiculed for his blockhead decision. But the pathetic little tree seemed to grow with love and warmed the hearts of the peanuts gang, and the mid-century, American consumer. Much like a shooting star, the brief sparkle of the aluminum tree faded.
The aluminum Christmas tree may have blurred into nostalgia for about forty years, but Charlie Brown’s Christmas special didn’t. Generations of children and sentimental parents kept the beloved program alive year after year. And with each replay came the question from curious, young minds and, perhaps, a few parents: “What’s an aluminum Christmas tree?”
My answer? It’s a sparkling adornment that reflects the joyous light of its environment. It’s a mid-century creation that reflects the zeal, ingenuity, and ambition of its creator. It’s a seasonal testament that reflects change, evolution, advancement…yet brings us back to the core—a reminder of our own Creator.
I purchased my aluminum Christmas tree about a month ago off eBay for $125. It’s four foot tall, and was 100% complete, including all fifty-eight branches, paper branch sleeves for storage, stand, instructions, and original box. If you’re willing to forego any of those components, the price obviously drops. At first I was looking for one without the “pom-pom” branches, but they sort-of grew on me as I shopped, and now I’m glad I picked that feature—the pom-poms add to the uniqueness. Perhaps they are a bit of space age “pop!”
Aluminum trees have made a resurgence in recent years, following the return to popularity of the modern style of design. Aside from that general trend, I think the trees were also resurrected out of grannies’ attics by the very television program that relegated them to that dark and dusty purgatory a few decades ago. That brightly animated and beautifully scored holiday tradition—deeply entrenched in the American household for fifty years—is a TV special in which Linus reminds us that the birth of the Christ child is the reason for the season, and the Christmas tree is its most holy, enduring symbol.
“Christmas Tree”. Wikipedia. N.p.,n.d. Web. 20 Dec 2015.
Williams, Tate. “The Short Life—and Awesome Resurgence—of the Aluminum Christmas Tree”. mental_floss. 24 Dec 2014. Web. 20 Dec 2015.
“Aluminum Specialty Company (Made First Aluminum Christmas Tree) – Manitowoc, Wisconsin 1967”. Scripophily.net. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Dec 2015.