Christmas Trees: Electric vs Real

Closeup of ornaments on a Christmas tree


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A Broadus neighbor ruled her family and home with an iron hand and longed to be the first woman in town with the latest thing. Before it was a “maybe sometime” idea in my house, this family had a propane gas kitchen range, a gigantic white enameled steel kitchen sink with both cold and HOT water, electricity with ceiling lights, and a refrigerator! 

So, it was not too surprising when, a few weeks before Christmas in the 1940s, she gained ownership of what I believed was the first electric aluminum Christmas tree in town. It was certainly the first one I had ever seen.

Her tree was a gleaming sculpture with lights that reflected off the highly waxed floor in the front room of their immaculate house. A 6-foot stem rose straight up from four splayed legs. Every foot or so, strategically placed holes accommodated branches that, when inserted, stuck straight out at a 90-degree angle.

The branches looked like thick wires, ending with tinsel-like fronds. Each succeeding set of branches was slightly offset from the first and was a few inches shorter, so that, when all were in place, the entire tree was a perfect, symmetrical see-through cone meant to somewhat resemble a perfectly shaped evergreen tree.

A white electric cord wound ornamentally around the stem and branches, bringing power to light little bulbs among the branches and a big star at the very tip top.

Here and there, translucent varicolored, 3-inch glass balls hung from the branches, glowing from nearby electric bulbs. It was a magnificent thing, and my friend and I couldn’t touch that tree or even go near it. 

When I told Mom about this aluminum structure, I wondered why we couldn’t have a Christmas tree.

We called the highest hill in our vicinity Wolf Mountain. If there were any trees to use as a Christmas tree, they would be found there.

One sunny winter day with no wind, the air was so clear we could almost see individual trees on that hill west of the river. Mom and Papa saddled up their horses, took ax and shovel and some twine and a big gunny sack and headed toward Wolf Mountain.

In December, Powder River had hardly any water. What little water was there was mostly frozen, so they rode straight across, passed through neighbors’ fields and pastures, and headed up into a gully of Wolf Mountain called Cache Creek.

After much discussion and searching, they found a small, mostly upright, dark green bush, properly called a juniper, but in our jargon called a cedar. Papa cut it off with two blows of the axe and pointed the end of the trunk, so it could be forced into a bucket of dirt that would hold it in place.

They wrapped the gunny sack around the tree, tied it into a bundle, and secured it to the saddle back of Papa’s big black horse. Warmed from their efforts and enjoying the beauty of the day, they retraced their route back to the ranch on Third Creek. 

The next day, walking home from school, we could see our little gray-blue car in the yard of our House in town. In winter our parents mostly stayed on the ranch with the sheep, and we girls stayed in town for school. We knew there would be a good warm supper that night and ran a little faster to get as much parent contact as we could before they had to go back to the ranch.

A big pot of stew simmered on our black, cast iron stove, and the aroma of fresh bread filled the entire house. There was a new smell. The little cedar tree curved mostly upright in the corner of the living room, far enough away from the pot-bellied stove, so it wouldn’t be a fire hazard. Some of the fronds held natural tiny clusters of blue berries. We were to have our Christmas tree!

But we didn’t have electricity for lights. We didn’t have translucent glass orbs to reflect the light. It was just a smelly 6-foot, high scraggly bush, stuffed into a bucket of dirt. 

Decoration efforts started right then. My sisters cut strips of colored construction paper and an old magazine, showing me how to glue them together to make a paper chain. We made popcorn, and they sewed the kernels together into a swag. I crushed too much popcorn, so I was put on paper-gluing duty while they sewed the popcorn strings.

Papa emptied the bag of mixed nuts in the shell that we always had at Christmas time. He winnowed out all the walnuts and carefully cracked them open with a small hammer. He removed the walnut meat inside and gave the shells to me to glue back together with a little loop of string at the top.

Mom got the nutmeats for fruitcakes. My sisters painted the glued shells with their one little bottle of red nail polish. 

We hung these small homemade things on our little cedar tree that was fast filling the house with its woodsy scent. The next day, we added silver tinsel we got from the drug store. 

The next year, Mom ordered ornaments from the catalog. She added a 2-inch silver orb, three 6-inch long glass icicles with circling stripes like candy canes, and three 3-inch-long silver glass icicles. 

The second year the neighbor’s aluminum tree shorted out and scorched the highly waxed floor of their front room. They were lucky it didn’t burn the house down.

Every year we had a new odiferous, decorated cedar tucked into the corner of our living room. We saved the walnut ornaments, making more every year until we had too many. 

I developed an antipathy toward artificial Christmas trees that hung on until we realized one of our children got sick every Christmas due to an allergic reaction to the natural tree aroma. Artificial trees, by that time, looked like real trees, although they were assembled in a fashion like my neighbor’s aluminum sculpture.

Since we can’t ride across the river and cut down a “real” smelly old tree, we now again have an artificial one. It sits most of the year in a basement storage room. It doesn’t shed aromatic allergens. We bring it to the living room, dust it off, and, among other favorites, we hang Mom’s silver orb with her glass and silver icicles. Maybe this year I will make a paper chain. MSN

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