My earliest warm recollections are of Christmas trees, and the difference between today’s tree decorations and those we had in 1942 Mississippi is bigger than a January Visa bill. Christmas decorations are less tasteful and traditional than they once were, but as Americans we’re proud to know they cost ten times as much.
Christmas accessories during the 1940s cost virtually nothing. Our tree-topping star was a cardboard cutout covered with wrinkled tinfoil. It looked loopy on the tree, but it was ours. My grandmother made it. Thank God she was a homemaker and not a surgeon.
Our lopsided star lived in a box with the other decorations: strings of lights, tinfoil icicles removed each year and saved for next Christmas, limp strings of tired tinsel, and colorful glass balls that would break if you glared at them. A handful of angels, stars, and Santas completed the cache.
My grandmother’s house was neither rich nor poor, and it also contained my grandfather (called Pop), my grandmother (called Mom), one aunt, my younger first cousin, and me.
Despite wartime dislocations, we had Christmas. And we decorated for it.
During the second week of December, Pop gathered up available family members and hauled us out into the country to saw down a tree, usually a six-foot cedar. We never used pine trees because they dried out and the needles fell off. The same was, of course, true of cedars, but somehow that subject never came up.
Once the tree was home, Pop nailed two boards to its trunk for a stand, Mom chose its best side, and decorating began. My cousin was two, and I was four, which made us less help and more trouble than a pair of Labradors. We could step on a bulb or two, but that was about it.
We wrapped the tree with strings of lights that were wired in series, meaning that if one bulb failed, they all went out. You had to unscrew each bulb and try a new one. When the string lighted back up, you knew you’d found the bad bulb. Our timeworn tinsel and recycled icicles went on the tree followed by ornaments. Pop ended the tree ceremony with his annual near-fall into the tree as he tried to position the star. Then someone plugged our festive firetrap into the wall, and magic lit the room.
We were ready for Christmas, and we’d got that way inexpensively—a word you use when you don’t want to say cheap. The total investment in decorations, beginning with the free tree, might have reached $20.00—a lavish sum spread out over no telling how many years.
Decorating today is an ornament of a different color. I Googled “Christmas decorations for sale” and looked at what’s available in modern Yuletide festoonery.
The trees are all artificial, and I guarantee they don’t smell like Christmas. A six-footer will cost you over $200.00. For $599.99 you can get a flocked version that hints at having been snowed on.
Traditional ornaments and tinsel ropes remain surprising bargains. Target offers 50 red balls for a giveaway $15.00, billing them shatterproof. Target must sell exclusively to childless homes.
One merchant, with “Recession Busting Prices,” has strings of lights for under $10.00. That’s so cheap you worry that Underwriters Laboratories may be asleep at the switch. But the same merchant also sells a giant pre-lighted artificial outdoor tree for a whimper-inducing $9,999.99. Pop would have sold the house for that.
For $13.99, you can have an 18-inch wreath for the door—a lighted “country twig” creation that looks like a white wire brush for your electric drill. A two-pack of artificial pine wreaths sells for as much as $169.99. But here’s the horrible part: the things come in colors beginning with traditional green and deteriorating to sky blue, sea foam green, and chartreuse.
It doesn’t end there. There’s a Santa suit with a 70-inch waistline, a foam-rubber Santa Claus beer cozy, personalized tree ornaments in birthstone colors, and enough Elvis ornaments to tacky-up Las Vegas.
There are also websites that help you make your own ornaments, but the first one I looked into announced it was going to teach me to make non-edible ornaments out of cookie dough. How much fun could that be?