It was 1969. Moon landing. Woodstock. Brady Bunch. A crazy year that inspired such toe-tapping tunes as “A Boy Named Sue,” “Pinball Wizard” and “Jam Up and Jelly Tight.”
“Hair” was on Broadway and the Best Movie of the Year was “Midnight Cowboy.” Literary types were reading “The Godfather,” “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “Slaughterhouse Five.” And the Mets won the World Series. Like I said . . . it was a crazy year.
Christmas of 1969 was a bit crazy for our family, too. It was the first time that we would spend Christmas far away from grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Maybe that’s why we had the “courage” to do what we did.
That year, all the glitz and commercialism of the season had somehow seeped into our psyches and we believed the TV ads that said we were hip. We were cool. We were groovy. No boring old-fashioned Christmas traditions for us. No-Sir-ee. So we did it. We bought an aluminum Christmas tree.
I’ll never forget that day. We had gone to Sears to do some Christmas shopping, each of us with our own agendas. My little brother Steve and I had some cash left over from our allowances to buy gifts, while Mom and Dad were checking out prices in the toy section. As we rounded a corner in the home appliances department we saw . . . IT.
There before us was a six-foot-tall aluminum tree decorated with identical silver glass ball ornaments and a big glittery star on top. We stood in amazement as the tree changed color from yellow, to blue, to green, to red and back to yellow. These brilliant colors were created by a rotating color wheel attached to a large flood lamp on the floor.
A sign next to the tree read: As advertised on TV! Permanent Christmas Tree! Easy to set up! No pesky pine needles! No messy tinsel! No clumpy garland! No strings of tangled lights with burned out bulbs! Lifetime guarantee!
Steve and I looked at each other with huge grins on our faces, but before our pleading whines even began, Dad grabbed one of the boxed trees off the top of the nearby pile and we were on our way to the cashier.
That night while Dad assembled the tree, Mom made some hot cocoa. Steve was ready to plug in the flood lamp at Dad’s command and I was sitting Indian-style on the floor munching on a sugar cookie waiting for the show to start. Perry Como started crooning “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” on the record player, and the scene was complete.
We watched as Dad stuck the individual branches into the tiny holes in the center of the silver-painted pole and before we knew it, the tree was up. Steve plugged in the lamp and the four of us watched our aluminum Christmas tree change color right before our eyes.
Mom made sure it was right in front of the big picture window in the living room. We wondered what it looked like from outside so we all ran out the door and stood on the sidewalk in front of the house. Our faces glowed as we watched the majestic display. Yes, we had the best tree on the block.
We were proud. We were exalted. We were on an ego trip you wouldn’t believe. Mom decided to plan a Christmas party to show off the tree. Steve and I invited the kids in our neighborhood to come over and see the tree. Dad bragged about the tree whenever he had a chance: “Hey, that’s a nice chainsaw you got there, Ed. By the way, have you seen our new Christmas tree?”
A few days later, Steve came home from school with a hand-made Christmas ornament made of construction paper, glue and glitter. It was a brown reindeer with a red button nose and a cotton ball tail. But when he started to put his masterpiece on the tree, we screamed, “No! You’ll ruin it!” Steve was disappointed, but he understood. The tree reigned supreme. His ornament was relegated to the refrigerator door.
One night there was a mechanical problem with the rotating color wheel. It stopped spinning. The tree stayed yellow and wouldn’t change. I sat by the wheel and manually switched out the colors every few seconds. Finally, Dad took it to the garage where he adjusted the whachamacallit and the dinglefrazz-o-meter. Everything was back to normal and we could all rest easy.
Mom got it into her head that all the gifts should be wrapped in silver paper to match the tree. That way, when the color wheel turned, the gifts would also reflect the light. And although I preferred the pretty red paper with the snowmen and penguins, I knew she was right. The silver packages glowed and filled the room with their glory.
I hate to admit it, but after a couple of weeks I was getting pretty tired of looking at that tin foil tree. We all were. It was two days before Christmas and we had just come home after visiting our neighbors across the street who had invited us over for eggnog and cookies. They had a real tree. It smelled like a forest and the dark green pine needles looked so festive with colorful ornaments hanging from the branches.
As we walked into the house that night, the aluminum tree shimmered in the moonlight from the picture window. Steve, with the excitement of a sloth, turned on the color wheel. We stared in disgust as the tree changed color. We were wrong. Our tree wasn’t the best tree on the block, after all. It was tacky . . . and we knew it.
As our grim faces turned yellow, blue, green, red and back to yellow, Steve went into the kitchen to get his reindeer ornament off the refrigerator. He put it on the tree and stepped back. We all smiled. It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.