Decorating the Tree — A Dangerous Christmas Tradition?

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Photo provided by Jim LaBate

My wife, Barbara, and I were at a dinner party recently, and the hostess asked us all to share a story of a Christmas tradition that we experienced as children. Interestingly, the tradition that I recall involved a component that no one even uses today because it’s now considered too dangerous for children. Who knew?

Our LaBate tradition always began the week before Christmas on December 18th. That day is my father’s birthday, so he always waited until that day to buy our tree. Typically, he’d pick up a tree on the way home from work at one of the nearby tree lots, and he’d set it up in a special tree stand in an area of our home called “the reception hall,” a room at the foot of the staircase and near the front door. That was a perfect spot for the tree because we rarely “received” guests in that room; most people who visited came in through the back door.

The tree stand we used was special because Dad crafted it himself. He never really cared for the cheap and somewhat unsteady tree stands that they sold in the hardware store. So one year, he decided to build a truly sturdy stand that would securely hold the big trees that he preferred. At the time, Dad was taking a welding class through his union training as a plumber-steamfitter. When the new stand was finished, Dad painted it red for the season, and believe me, this stand is huge, solid, and heavy. This monster has to be over 50 years old now, but if Rockefeller Center ever needed a stand for its gigantic Norway Spruce, Dad’s masterpiece could definitely do the job.

So anyway, once the tree was up and secure, and once the branches had dropped a bit, we were ready to decorate. Early on, of course, Mom and Dad put most of the ornaments on the tree, but with each passing year, they delegated more of that chore to the kids. My favorite ornament, by the way, is still the spinning blades ensconced in a circular shell. As a young boy, I just thought this ornament looked cool, but as I got older, I realized the blades would actually spin if I hooked the ornament on the tree just above one of the darker lights, like red or orange, lights that gave off just enough heat to spin the blades. Those ornaments are so awesome.

Finally, once the tree was just about fully decorated, Dad pulled out the “one” box of tinsel that he had purchased along with the tree. We all loved this final ritual of putting tinsel on the branches. Now, I may be exaggerating here, but that box seemed pretty small back then with maybe 100 strands of tinsel. With six kids in our family, that meant we each got about 15 strands, and if Dad had miscalculated as he handed each of us our share, he heard about it.

“Daddy!” One of my younger sisters might have exclaimed. “I only got 10, and I think Jimmy’s got about 20.”

If I had noticed the discrepancy, I was not about to share my good fortune; I was too busy neatly arranging each one of my strands as high on the tree as possible, so I could remember specifically where they were and admire them later on when we were finished. Ironically, in subsequent years, when we had more tinsel — because we could afford more boxes and because we had frugally saved the tinsel from previous years — we weren’t quite as meticulous. Yes, we might delicately place the first four or five strands one at a time, but within a minute or so, we were just tossing small bunches of tinsel on the tree.

So whatever happened to the tinsel days of my youth? Well, according to Wikipedia, the Christmas tinsel that we grew up with during the 50s and 60s contained lead foil, and that type of tinsel was gradually phased out because the Food and Drug Administration “concluded in August 1971 that lead tinsel caused an unnecessary risk to children, and convinced manufacturers and importers to voluntarily stop producing or importing lead tinsel after January 1, 1972.”

As a result, the tinsel we have available today is made from other materials, and I know Barbara and I never actually purchased any of the new variety when our girls were small. Instead, we would sometimes create strings of popcorn, and later, we switched to red ribbons. The ribbons look great, too, but I have to admit, I miss the old tinsel. It had a certain special quality to it that seems to be missing today. Even the Wikipedia article mentions that “These plastic forms of tinsel do not hang as well as tinsel made from heavy metals such as silver and lead.”

Do I miss the old tinsel enough that I want to go back to using a product that might be dangerous? Of course not. But those thin strands of silver, originally designed to look like icicles, always looked so good on the tree and now hold a special place in my heart. May this Christmas season also remind you not only of the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ but also of the many family traditions and memories that you recall from your childhood and that you share with your family and friends.

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Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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