Thanks to the “new homesteading” craze, cutting down one’s own tree and stringing it with hand-sewn garlands of cranberries and popcorn is the thing to do: at least for Pinterest adherents. But it’s not for everyone.
The antithesis of this earthy fad is what designer Stephen Jackson has devoted close to a quarter century tending — getting coverage from Southern Living, the New York Times, NPR, and the BBC along the way.
It’s not that High Country staple, the live Christmas-tree farm, but instead the Aluminum Christmas Tree & Ornament Museum. After a few incarnations — including a long stint at Smith-McDowell House Museum — and a hiatus, the attraction is now back in Brevard, where it started, though newly housed in the Transylvania Heritage Museum. President Pat Childress is offering up a special exhibit space for a third of Jackson’s major collection.
Atomic-age aluminum Christmas trees were famously spoofed in the 1965 Charlie Brown Christmas Special. Today, though, we’re far enough away from their mid-20th-century introduction that they’re retro-cool, an object of fond nostalgia for many born before 1970.
Watching the spinning color-wheel light bathe the tree in ever-changing rainbow hues, or visiting grandparents who annually pulled one out of a box and inserted foil-needle “branches” into the man-made “trunk” — these recollections are no less “real” than those tree-getting memories that involve traipsing through freezing forests with an axe.
Jackson renewed his appreciation for the metal trees in the late ’80s, when he received one as a gift. It sparked a collection that now includes 85 specimens. But it really began during his own Mid Century Modern childhood.
“We lived in a ranch house with big picture windows in Charlotte,” he recalls, “and I remember seeing these trees pop up more and more in neighbors’ houses. My mom was a fan of Danish Modern design, so it made sense that we did eventually get one.
“As for what made it popular with kids, I really think it was the color wheel — it was lots of fun. It was a no-mess option for parents, too: no falling needles, and you just stuck it back in the box after Christmas was over.”
Jackson points out that after the demand for the trees waned, they languished in attics and garages for years, only to be rediscovered two decades later, as people gravitated to their contagious kitsch appeal.
More than 40 manufacturers, including the Aluminum Specialty Company in Wisconsin, made the saucy spruces during their heyday in the ’60s. (Their most popular model was the “Evergleam.”)
True to the times’ better-living-through-chemistry values, the trees were unabashedly and unapologetically glittery and glossy — tacky, even, in an eons-removed-from-nature sort of way.
Jackson eventually founded the appropriately named ATOM, an era-specific acronym that stood for this mouthful: the Aluminum Tree and Aesthetically Challenged Seasonal Ornament Museum and Research Center. Imbued with a decidedly tongue-in-cheek approach, it was the only cultural institution devoted to this atomic-age artifact.
Jackson doesn’t classify himself as a Christmas kind of guy, but when he relocated from Charlotte to Brevard 20-some years ago, he thought it would be fun to have an aluminum-tree and tacky-ornament party to meet new friends and neighbors. It snowballed.
“My collection and the guest count kept growing, until I couldn’t hold it in my house anymore,” he explains. “With this year’s exhibit at the museum, more people can enjoy the trees and the show will raise some funds for the museum — definitely a win-win.”
Childress maintains that it’s absolutely in keeping with the museum’s stated mission of “connecting community, history, and life.”
“We are dedicated to representing local culture in many ways, and the aluminum-tree exhibit is certainly reflective of a specific time in our local history,” she says. “Though we create exhibits which showcase what most people think of as traditional Appalachian culture, this was a trend that swept the nation.”
She also offers some tempting teasers for those considering a visit. “We’ll have all cleverly themed trees this year, from the “Philoso-tree” to the Marilyn Monroe tree to the Baby Boomer tree.” The gift shop will even have aluminum-tree starter kits, complete with seedlings and growing instructions.
The aluminum tree’s popularity endures, proven by a quick search on Etsy or eBay — original specimens are coveted and pricey. But reproductions have popped up everywhere, including at big-box retailers such as Target.
Explaining the adoration, Jackson cites the tastes of two large demographics: “The Baby Boomers love them because they’re a bit of childhood nostalgia from an era when Christmas was more kitsch and less Currier & Ives. The generations after the Boomers seem to like them because they’re fun and novel.”
The Aluminum Christmas Tree & Ornament Exhibit shows at the Transylvania County Heritage Museum (189 West Main St., Brevard) through December 20. Hours: Wednesday through Saturday, 12-7 pm. Call 828-884-2347 or see transylvaniaheritage.org for more information.