HEAVY METAL CHRISTMAS
I grew to appreciate the distinctive glamour of precise angles and brilliant hard surfaces, so it only made sense that our first Christmas tree would be that most modern of 60s Yule cool: an aluminum tree.
Over the years, I have collected aluminum Christmas trees and color wheels from garage sales, but they’re getting harder to find.
It was 1961 when my father moved our family from a small rental house at the corner of East Mountain Lane and Graysville Road to a couple of undeveloped acres on a dead-end dirt lane called Heaton Drive off East Brainerd Road in the shadow of what would become Hurricane Creek. My mother inherited the land from her Uncle Mark in Miami, and with the addition of a brand-new, blinding white, 10’ x 60’ mobile home, the Ingle family became first-time homeowners and landed gentry. True, we lived in a trailer, but it wasn’t in a “park,” and back then mobile homes were made with the care and quality of an Airstream. This meant thick, real wood paneling and high-grade linoleum throughout. With turquoise appliances and sink, a tangerine Naugahyde vinyl living room suite, and heavily textured, fiberglass-lined, tan floor-length drapes, my mother looked like a Mad Men extra . . . in a trailer.
I grew to appreciate the distinctive glamour of precise angles and brilliant hard surfaces, so it only made sense that our first Christmas tree would be that most modern of 60s Yule cool: an aluminum tree. Electrical codes (and basic knowledge of physical science) forbade the use of electric lights on our tin tannenbaum, but that small hurdle was cleared with élan: the color wheel. The gently revolving hard plastic disc was quartered into four thick “diamond cut” panels of amber, red, green, and blue. It lazily spun just scant inches away from an attached high-wattage flood lamp; indeed, had the little motor turning the plastic wheel failed, the colorful disc would have melted from the concentrated heat. Fire hazard? Probably. But it was worth the risk to see our futuristic tree gently change colors before our very eyes. Many were the discussions and prototypical placements of the color wheel to achieve maximum effect, and I begrudgingly trudged to the top of Heaton Drive not a few times to see how the tree looked from East Brainerd Road. Apparently my mother wanted the then-rural drivers to have a bit of holiday cheer on their cold journeys home.
These days, when I do find old aluminum Christmas trees and color wheels at garage sales, they’re almost always overpriced and sadly worn. I probably own enough pieces and sets to erect two full aluminum trees, but I only have one functioning color wheel. When I fly during the holidays, the in-flight reading fare often includes Hammacher Schlemmer catalogs featuring pricey retro reproductions of the original aluminum Christmas tree and color wheel, but even in the glossy photos, I can see that the color wheel isn’t as substantial (and blinding) as the ones I cut my Christmas teeth on. Now, when I set up my old aluminum tree in my own 60s East Brainerd rancher (ironic, I know), turn the lights off and get the color wheel spinning with its old motor grinding at a low-grade hum, I can almost see the changing hues reflecting from the eyeglass lenses of my parents seated on their tangerine couch in my own faded-Polaroid memories.