It used to throw off sparks. Not big ones, but like the sparks from an empty cigarette lighter. Presumably, this was by design and not some overlooked safety issue. In retrospect, it’s probably a good thing that there is a solid month between Halloween and the beginning of the Christmas season. Or at least there used to be, back when store-bought plastic Halloween costumes were appallingly flammable.
It is, perhaps, best described as a tchotchke, at least insomuch as a Yiddish word can be used to describe a Christmas toy. Without the tin tree on top, it would be virtually indistinguishable from any number of dime-store doo-dads. It radiates such cheapness and frivolousness that it makes people who have never lived in a world with extant dime-stores use the term. So, it makes perfect sense, then, that it began as a Depression-era amusement. According to a seller on Etsy, the toy has its origins in the 1930s (and his, the same late-70s vintage as mine, can be yours for four dollars). As a kid, I didn’t give much thought to its provenance. This was the kind of disposable novelty that occasionally used to be made in this country before we lost our disposable novelty sector to overseas competition.
It’s yellow: a small, oblong box with exposed gears at one end and a plunger labeled “push” at the other. As you followed this instruction (repeatedly and quickly, for best results), the tree would spin, and as it accelerated, centrifugal force would peel back the sections of the Christmas Tree to reveal Santa Claus, or a red and white plastic nugget which served as a pretty close approximation thereof. When you stopped pressing, the tree would decelerate until the inward pull of a rubber band would overpower the outward tug of inertia and it would snap back together like a Saint-eating Venus Flytrap.
Amazingly, it’s still in one piece, and, aside from no longer sparking, it still kind of works. Mostly. The Christmas tree no longer snaps back firmly to fully enclose the Santa nugget. This could be blamed on thirty years of material fatigue or enthusiastic use. It could, more accurately, be blamed on a five year-old kid testing, by force, how far the tree would spread apart.
My mom puts the toy out on the coffee table every Christmas, and I’m always afraid that each spin will be its last. The first spin each year puts me in my grandparents’ house a few days before Christmas, circa 1980.
It was probably a gift from one of their friends: someone who was in the Lion’s Club with Pop, or played bridge with Nan, or golfed with either: friends who would have hastily picked up a few cheap toys every December to give to each other’s grandchildren. It was likely picked out by the wife of one of the Jims; I think there were several of those. Before I unwrapped the gift, Pop probably made me recite the Pledge of Allegiance for them, something he always insisted I perform for friends and acquaintances, well past the age were it was still cute or even remotely impressive
I miss having a lot of these people around; many of them are dead now. Nan isn’t. Pop is. There was something about the way they all dressed and talked and carried themselves that I will always identify with these World War II vets and their wives. The standard historical explanation is that this was a generation that emerged from the crucible of war with a certain, well-earned swagger and a ring-a-ding-ding optimism. The Greatest Generation, it is a cliché to call them. To me, they are the It Seems Sensible to Put Astroturf on the Porch Generation.
Whether it was a small strip on Nan and Pop’s front steps, or a slightly undersized artificial lawn on the back porches of all their friends, Astroturf was omnipresent. In my mind, their reasoning went something like this: science beat Japan. It might as well cover the patio, too.
This, of course, doesn’t hold up to historical examination. While I imagine young veterans faux-lawning their porches simultaneous to starting families under Truman or Eisenhower, as it turns out, Astroturf wasn’t even invented until the mid 60s. It probably didn’t make it onto patios in small-town Appalachia until well into the Seventies.
But, why did my grandparents’ friends take to it so? Obviously, no one was fooled into thinking grass was growing on the porch, which, come to think of it, would generally be perceived as a sign of poor maintenance. Was it a symbol of opulence? Of conspicuous consumption? As in, “Hey, look. I can afford the best plastic turf that American know-how can invent, and it’s relegated to my porch, of all places.”
I don’t know why a patio decor trend of early-80s western North Carolina has stuck with me, but strangely, it has. There’s a street on the far side of my neighborhood now that I have no reason to visit. It’s not particularly attractive, and a dead-end requires you to backtrack up a steep hill. But, I go to the cul-de-sac anyway to feel the nostalgic twinge I get from one house: the one with Astroturf on the porch.
It’s weird, I guess, that I crave the wistful feelings conjured by ephemera from my childhood so much that I will go out of my way to see a few square yards of Astroturf. It’s not unlike the pangs I feel when I see a house with particularly dated holiday décor, big, pear-shaped, colored Christmas lights, or a faded, hard plastic Santa on the lawn (as opposed to the more contemporary inflatable sort which, in comparison, displays a real lack of basement-space commitment). Where slightly melancholic nostalgia is concerned, I’m an addict: not necessarily a fiend, but more like a college kid spending summer abroad in Europe, with Christmas the somewhat regrettable weekend excursion to Amsterdam.
Nostalgia is palpable at Christmas. Even as a kid, I would pine for my previous Christmases. All five or six of them. And aside from specific ones, I would yearn for our family Christmases in aggregate: for the tree, for my favorite merry-go-round ornament, for the presents, for eggnog, for the ceramic angel with the late-1960s Mia Farrow hair that would always reside on the same shelf in our living room. I still think about the holidays of my childhood, but now, mostly, I think a lot of what I get nostalgic for is that feeling. As someone rapidly approaching middle-age, it’s certainly hard to get as excited or invest as much energy and joy into Christmas as I used to, no matter how hard I try or how much eggnog I drink.
There’s a vagueness to my nostalgia now; I’m wistful for this mythical notion of a grand, post-war American Holiday Tradition centered in the amorphous Heartland. It’s Iowa, let’s say: a Hollywood placeholder for a real location, much like “555” subs for actual phone numbers. Good cheer abounds, and big families in sweaters gather, alternately, in retro-hip mid-century ranch houses or in toasty brownish living rooms that look like the TV set where Bing Crosby and David Bowie taped their duet. Sometimes the tree is noticeably fake, but usually it’s real. There’s music on the hi-fi. There’s probably a dog. A spinning-tree toy sits on the coffee table, long forgotten, having been offered as appeasement to an anxious kid two days earlier on Christmas Eve Eve. Now, the kids play with something bigger and shinier but similarly low tech, the adults discretely sneak a few drinks, and later, some members of the Greatest Generation will excuse themselves for a smoke on the Astroturf covered patio.
This Christmas is, of course, the product of an immense reservoir of nostalgia coupled with 35 years of exposure to cheesy holiday-related pop culture that has little basis in reality. This Christmas never happened. Right? Right? Then, why is that spinning tree toy still on the coffee table?
As a kid, the toy never meant as much to me as the groovy ceramic angels or the carousel ornament. But now, when I see it each year, it’s like a holy relic: something tangible allegedly proving the mythical to be real. I don’t intend to put the spinning tree toy on par with the Holy Prepuce or the finger bone of a Magi; while considerably less gruesome, in truth, the spinning tree toy is merely crap. But, this is vintage crap, from a time when people didn’t realize that such things, if they survived, would be collected, even fetishized, for their retro kitsch value. They certainly didn’t imagine that it could be viewed as an artifact of a Christmas that may or may not have existed sometime in the past, let alone treasured by one person as an unlikely keepsake of the generation that kind of saved the world.
This piece originally ran in Jason Pierce Mallory‘s Scene Missing Magazine during Christmas, 2011.
And speaking of Christmas and nostalgia and such, I just co-produced a decent Christmas show for local PBS. You can watch it here: Christmas Around Atlanta