If you were an American kid in the early ’60s, Christmas went one of two ways: you either had a super-sparkly aluminum Christmas tree or you wished you did. For the latter half of the baby boomer generation, a swanky silver tree represented cool modern style. With a tree like that, it almost didn’t matter what was wrapped up underneath.
Flash forward several decades and the aluminum tree had been almost completely relegated to the trash heap of history, along with beehive hairdos and princess phones. But Brevard custom home designer Stephen Jackson may have single-handedly (and inadvertently) brought the ’60s holiday icon back from the brink with his aluminum tree collection, shown for its 12th and final year at the Aluminum Tree and Ornament Museum in Brevard.
The first aluminum trees appeared in 1959, when convenience was king and “natural” wasn’t considered a particularly strong selling point. “It was the TV dinner of Christmas trees,” says Jackson, and, in fact, most of the manufacturers made their bread and butter in the aluminum cookware business. With names like Glitter Pine, the Sparkler, Silver Glow and Evergleam, the trees took Christmas chic up a notch—less time setting up a tree and vacuuming up pine needles meant more time for cocktails. Jackson says that trees were often seen in the background of holiday advertisements featuring glamorous gals, including Marilyn Monroe. While silver was perhaps the most popular color, aluminum trees came in ice blue, pink, gold and three shades of green. And if the built-in shine of the aluminum wasn’t enough, you could purchase a color wheel—a rotating multi-colored light—and point it at those shimmering branches for an extra dose of glittery Christmas cheer. At the height of the aluminum tree fad, there were millions of them on the market.
By the 1970s, says Jackson, the aluminum tree’s reputation had tarnished. “They started to be seen as tacky.” The kids who had grown up thrilling to the sight of the sparkly tree on Christmas morning had moved on to disco balls. Manufacturers stopped making them, and the trees ended up in attics, basements, and yard sales all over the country, along with pink kitchen appliances and other relics of the atomic age.
Jackson’s family had an aluminum tree in the ’60s, so it had something of a special place in his heart, more as a bit of nostalgia than anything else. When he moved to Brevard from Charlotte, he hosted a tree trimming party with an aluminum tree “as a joke.” Next thing he knew, though, someone had given him another one—also as a joke. Before long, he had seven aluminum trees and a fun idea for a little holiday event. The Stephen Paul Jackson Aluminum Tree and Aesthetically Challenged Seasonal Ornament Museum and Research Center debuted at the Brevard VFW in 1998. As it turned out, there was nothing little about it—a crowd of 300 turned out over the course of a weekend. People were just looking for something a little different to do, Jackson says, and for those who remembered them, the tree trees brought back happy childhood memories.
Soon, children of the ’60s were emptying their elderly parents’ homes or selling their estates and began to donate trees to Jackson. eBay was invented. His collection swelled, and the aluminum tree museum, now called ATOM (Aluminum Tree and Ornament Museum) in honor of the atomic age, became a much anticipated annual holiday event in Brevard. “Every year it got a little bit bigger,” says Jackson.
Around the same time, there was a resurgence of interest in ’50s and ’60s design, and the price of the trees rose accordingly. Once found as 25-cent yard sale items, aluminum trees became coveted auction finds that collectors were willing to pay hundreds of dollars for (a rare 7-foot-tall pink tree went for over $3,000 on eBay a few years ago). The aluminum tree had reclaimed some of its former shine.
While it was never Jackson’s intention to create the world’s largest aluminum Christmas tree collection, that’s exactly what happened, and ATOM started to get people’s attention. The Spanish-language cable network Telemundo did a segment about the museum, and a newspaper reporter traveled all the way from Poland to file a report. A group of women who had shown up the second year in ’50s holiday splendor all the way from “the nether regions of Hendersonville” began a “seasonal pilgrimage” to the museum, later dubbing themselves the Atomic Sisterhood.
“By the third year, we began tweaking traditional holiday carols and putting on a show,” says Laura Miklowitz, one the Sisterhood’s original members. The group, which also includes Martha Huggins, Diane Rhoades, Louisa Nelson, Michele Skeele, Costanza Knight and Annie Welty, was so dedicated that when the museum went on sabbatical for two years, they continued to perform in its absence. They even have a songbook of altered holiday lyrics honoring the aluminum tree. Among the favorites, “Walkin’ in a Tinsel Wonderland”: Later on, we’ll conspire, by our tree made of wire, to face unafraid, a tree that won’t fade, walkin’ in a tinsel wonderland.”
While Jackson’s devotion to the tinsel tree hasn’t faded, the work involved in staging a seasonal museum made the holiday season less than relaxing, and he’s ready to retire from the curating business. The final exhibition of the Aluminum Tree and Ornament Museum, will be held this year at the Translyvania Heritage Museum in Brevard. The show features 50 of the finest trees in the 120-tree collection, one for each of the 50 years since the tree burst onto the holiday scene. The Atomic Sisterhood will hold two performances this year, one at the museum and the other at the Hendersonville Visitor’s Information Center.
After this holiday season, Jackson is hoping to sell the entire collection to a nonprofit that can use it for an annual fundraiser. If his experience is any indication, it’s a winning proposition that can’t fail to spread holiday cheer.
All That Glitters
Visit the Aluminum Tree and Ornament Museum at the Transylvania Heritage Museum in Brevard November 27 through December 19, every Wednesday through Saturdays, 10am to 5pm. Proceeds from the price of admission benefit the museum.
The Atomic Sisterhood (above) will perform December 4th at the Hendersonville Visitor’s Information Center Christmas Open House, 201 S Main St. at 6:30 and December 19th at the Transylvania Heritage Museum at noon.
For more information, call 828-884-2347.