The Aluminum and Color Wheel Christmas

The Aluminum and Color Wheel Christmas

by Michael Patrick O’Brien, author of Monastery MorningsMy Unusual Boyhood Among the Saints and Monks

The fifty year old photo of my family’s old aluminum Christmas tree includes a surprise. A small and almost undetectable child in red and white striped pajamas sits beside, and almost under, the artificial tree. His wide eyes reveal he is oblivious to the nearby photographer, instead absorbed within the shimmering silveriness surrounding him.

It’s me, or at least a much younger and nostalgic version of me. I loved that tacky metallic tree. For Christmas 1965 we set it up in front of our home’s living room picture window and trimmed it with cheap glass ornaments. And then, we plugged a vintage color wheel into the outlet on the wall and watched as it flooded the tree with alternating red, green, blue, and yellow streams of light generated by vinyl panels rotating slowly over an electric bulb.

The memory seems rich, but the real time moment probably was not. My father, an Air Force sergeant, was gone on a long term overseas assignment in Saigon, Viet Nam, as the American war effort there escalated. Military rules at the time did not permit us to stay in the Hill Air Force Base, Utah, housing where we had lived for three years. As a result, the rest of the family- my mother, two sisters, brother, and me- had to relocate.

My mother, a devoted homemaker without a lot of money and with no independent source of income, scrambled and eventually found us an inexpensive rental house on Airlane Drive just off the base in the small town of Clearfield. The little subdivision was developed in the early 1950s and featured tidy 1,000 square foot box houses with three bedrooms and a bath. After World War II, realtors had aggressively marketed the area to GIs returning from war and seeking to settle in and procreate. Most of the second generation of residents, like us, were tenants of the original owners.

As she always did during the transient Air Force existence that defined her marriage, Mom tried to turn our latest temporary domicile into a cozy home. We got a collie puppy named Laddie and my siblings settled into schools just down the road. For Christmas, we sprayed white tree-flock from aerosol cans to stencil holiday scenes of Santa, holly, candy canes, bells, and an angel on our front window. We pulled the aluminum tree out of storage boxes and set the color wheel right next to it. The sincere but meager decorations matched our meager economic means.

Aluminum trees and color wheels were all the rage in the middle years of the last century. A Wisconsin company perfected an inexpensive version of the factory fabricated tannenbaum, cleverly called it “Evergleam,” and took it to market in 1959. They were sleek, sparkly, and never made a dried-up needle mess. They also captured the spirit of the emerging space age, when names like Sputnik, Gagarin, Shepard, and Glenn sparked the imagination and dominated the headlines.

Our color wheel complimented our Evergleam tree. A small and simple device, kin to the basic equipment used to bring theatrical productions to life, it poured cascades of holiday colors onto the tree. The tree returned the compliment by bouncing shards of reflected light from its metallic branches and piercing the frigid winter darkness of the shortest days of the year.

The best place to view, or even better to be part of, the festive glow was right by the tree, which is where the fifty year old photo finds the five year old me. I would sit by the tree for hours, ideally in the dark, and watch the reflected beams dance around the room. I would put my head under the tree, and imagine I was a miniature astronaut elf, jumping off the top branches, careening from one ornament planet to another, and splashing down in a sea of wrapped presents. It was the closest a five year old boy could get to magic at the time.

But alas, magic has a painfully short shelf life. After the wildly-popular 1965 animated television special “A Charlie Brown Christmas” depicted aluminum trees quite harshly, the last Evergleam was produced a mere five years later. My family suffered a similar fate, on a similar timeline. By 1970, our collie had died, my father left us for a new wife and family, my parents divorced, and our once-happy family was broken into pieces, living in three different places in two different states.

My beloved holiday decor also was the ghost of Christmas future, a metaphor for the times just ahead…spinning instead of calm…alternating shades of dark and bright…out with the old and in with the new. Such are the philosophical ruminations of an older man looking backwards and trying to connect life’s dots, long after the five year old boy in him has departed.

The young boy in striped pajamas, however, is never too far away. He does not remember the presents he received in December 1965, but he cherishes the loving and laughing holiday voices of his mother, sisters, and brother. And he drinks deeply from the abundant well of joy that still flows so freely from a simple aluminum tree and a Christmas color wheel.


NOTE: This article was published on the blog The Boy Monk on December 25, 2018

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