Yesterday's Magazette

7 – A Most Distinguished Effect

A Most Distinguished Effect

By Madonna Dries Christensen

There are as many ways to trim a Christmas tree as there are snowflakes in a blizzard. How you do it probably has something to do with family traditions and rituals from Christmases past.

Many people prefer an eclectic approach, glazing the greenery with colorful ornaments and trinkets collected over a lifetime. Each familiar piece is a stepping stone to an earlier era, evoking a string of memories tied together like the lights on the tree. At the top there is often a star or an angel.

Others like a color-coordinated tree, perhaps with only white lights and gold ribbons, or a theme tree laden with Santa Claus figures, snowmen, miniature toys, or collectible items from a classic movie such as Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. One year, in lieu of my traditional eclectic tree, I used an African theme, with lots of carved animals to catch the eye of my granddaughter visiting from South Africa. Breaking with tradition, the tree had no tinsel for the inquisitive toddler to pluck off and possibly eat.

When it comes to tinsel, there are two kinds of people; those who scream, “No, never,” and those who claim a tree isn’t complete until the silvery threads are added, “One at a time, please.” I’m among the latter; my daughter stands with the former. Still, one year she gave me two unopened envelopes of vintage lead icicles, the kind used when I was a child in the forties. Dull silver in color, each strand has enough weight so that when hung on the tree, it stays put. Today’s flimsy plastic particles create static electricity and float about in the slightest air current.

Humorist Russell Baker shares my appreciation for real icicles. In a column he wrote years ago, he revealed that his wife and children think icicles are vulgar. He explained, “That’s the whole point. Of course icicles are vulgar. Christmas trees are vulgar, too, and in bad taste. Putting a chopped pine in the parlor is almost as tasteless as putting a plastic one in the parlor, and the reason we do it is because Christmas is the only holiday we have that authorizes even the fanciest people to revel in vulgarity and bad taste.”

Tinsel originated in Germany in about 1620. In the late 1800s, German glassblowers produced crystal ornaments that looked like actual icicles, with a built-in hook for hanging them. In darkened Victorian parlors, trees sparkled with these glass, tin, or sterling silver icicles. Along about 1920, tinsel made from lead was introduced. The product was banned from the market in 1960 to protect children from lead poisoning should they chew on the strands. At that time, Russell Baker bought all the lead icicles he could find and hoarded them in his attic.

Alas; I didn’t do that, but I have the two packages from my daughter. They originated in Germany, and my guess is they are from the 1930s. On the brown paper envelope are the words: Brillant Eis-Lametta. Vornehmste a. effectvollste Zierde des Weihnachtsbaumes. Loosely translated that means: Brilliant ice-tinsel. Most distinguished, fullest effect for your Christmas tree.

Shimmering on my tree, they do indeed create a distinguished effect. Carefully removed and stored each year, they should last another century. And since Christmas is mostly about nostalgia and tradition, perhaps one day my grandchildren will drape a few strips of these icicles on their trees. They might explain to their children, “We’ll do it for Granny. She always put gobs of tinsel on her Christmas tree.”


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