By: S.L. Frisbie, IV for Polk News-Sun
S.L. Frisbie IV Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame Member, 4th-Generation Polk County Newspaper Publisher
Christmas trees, then and now
America’s official Christmas tree — if there is such a thing — is the one erected each year at Rockefeller Center.
It is a tradition that began in 1931, or perhaps 1933. Both dates are listed in the same historical account on the internet. The height of the first tree is reported to have been 20 feet.
This year’s tree is a Norway Spruce, standing 75 feet and weighing 11 tons, or perhaps 13. The internet lists both weights.
It is lit by five miles of Christmas lights, or perhaps seven. You get the idea.
Authoritative information is a little hard to come by, but it is definitely a big tree with around 50,000 LED lights.
This year, a tiny owl stowed away for the 170-mile trip from Oneonta, N.Y., and was promptly named Rockefeller, or Rocky for short.
He was fed a few primo mice and released back into the wild, none-the-worse for wear.
The history of the Rockefeller tree, albeit a little sketchy on details, brought back memories of the Christmas trees of my childhood, from say the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s.
After returning from combat service in World War II, Dad took us out each December to mined-over phosphate land, where the owners welcomed visitors. We would find a nicely-shaped sand pine, which Dad sawed down. We took it home and he mounted it on a stand which he made from 2x4s.
Store-bought stands were as rare as store-bought trees.
We lighted the tree with short strands of colored incandescent bulbs, which burned hot enough to create brown spots wherever they touched the dry branches.
And when one bulb burned out, the entire strand went out.
Finding the burned out bulb was a bit of a scavenger hunt. You replaced one light at a time until the deceased one was identified. It was replaced, and light was restored … until another bulb burned out.
I remember the excitement when the first Christmas lights came out with a label which boasted “When one bulb burns out, the rest stay lit.” The boast meant exactly that.
If a second bulb burned out before the first one was replaced, they all went out.
Today, “real trees” are brought to Florida from as far away as Canada. (I call them “real trees,” not “live trees,” since it has been my observation that the minute you cut them down they become dead.)
Artificial trees look almost as realistic as the real thing. Some even come with permanent lights.
Artificial trees come without a daily shower of falling needles and the need for frequent watering.
They make good economic sense, but there are still purists who insist on the real thing, falling needles, watering cans, and all. Mary and I are among them. Plastic does not smell like a real tree.
Unlike the Christmas lights of yester-decade, today’s LED lights come in strings of 100 or so lights. They remain cool to the touch, and the string keeps burning until so many bulbs have burned out that it’s not worth the effort to keep replacing them.
Lights are not the only change.
The fragile thin glass ornaments of my childhood have been replaced, for the most part, with unbreakable ornaments of metal, wood, fabric, or plastic.
Many are souvenirs of places we have visited, or colleges we and our children have attended. We have left the price tags on ones bought in foreign countries, showing the price in pounds, Euros, or whatever is the local currency.
A few bear dates when they were made, giving a glimpse into life in that era.
In that vein, perhaps we should make a few miniature face masks bearing the numbers 2020 to be given to our yet unborn great and great-great grandchildren.
Their parents could explain the significance.
(S. L. Frisbie is retired. He wonders if “real trees” will even be an option two generations hence.)
Used with permission of Polk News-Sun