The Christmas Fire

Recollections of childhood Christmases are rekindled to a level of vividness as the holiday gets closer and closer.  I think back on those ‘days of yore’ with fondness and joy. One of my favorite memories involves a near tragedy surrounding our family Christmas tree. 

Finding the perfect specimen of a tree was almost a competitive sport before artificial look-alikes were invented. It seemed like everyone in my hometown of Danville, Illinois in the 1950s had the same quest.  Our mission was to search out the perfect pine to be festooned in our front room windows.  Tree lots were meticulously combed from as early as the day after Thanksgiving.  The pondering of long needles, short needles, spruce or balsam was considered at length as if such a purchase never occurred before.  Finally, a decision was made about which tree would hold up best and the crown jewel of Christmas was chosen.

Bobby and the traditional tree

Every family has their own traditions.  Ours was to haul our tree up to the body shop of Glen T. Smith Chrysler-Plymouth on North Vermilion across from The Times Theatre. Uncle Glen was my mother’s brother-in-law.  He would load his car painting equipment with a sticky white fluff substance so that his family, ours, and my grandparents could flock the trees to look like a heavy snow had just covered them.

The arrival of the tree at our home, tied and wrapped securely to the top of our car was a moment of triumph for my Dad.  Soon Christmas splendor would appear for the whole neighborhood to witness.  Decorations with special family significance, a cotton tree skirt, bubble, and twinkle/multicolor lights were draped on the branches while eggnog and fudge were consumed next to the fireplace.  But then, in 1960, something earth-shattering happened. Mother discovered the new, magnificent, and elegant Aluminum Christmas Tree (complete with rotating color wheel).

Mom's pride and joy

I was never quite sure why my father relented to this interloping phony which began to grace our "sunroom" that next Christmas.  It was as if some distorted alien being had come to rest near the front door. He would give it the most disturbing glances as he passed by…not quite a scowl but something akin to revulsion and disgust.  Mom was oblivious.  I had never seen her any prouder than she was over her decorator tree from Marshall Fields in Chicago.  To make matters even worse for Dad, it could only be decorated with uniform fashionable red ornaments.  No lights were necessary either.  The color wheel took care of that.  One moment it was green, then red, then blue and then a strange yellow gold.  All of the bulbs and baubles were abandoned to the attic in deference to the imitation thing that had replaced our beloved flocked masterpiece. 

There developed an increasing tension between the tree and Dad over the next two years. It was 1964 when all hell broke loose. Finally the unhappiness Dad was experiencing proved to be too much for Mom.  She reluctantly gave in and issued a reprieve for the restoration of some old decorations to hang on the metal impostor. But Dad must not have heard the word ‘some’. She watched in horror as he brought down ALL of the old ornaments and lights and draped them from top to bottom.  The once gleaming essence of simplicity got loaded down with everything but popcorn garland.  Mother watched in a nearby chair with a stiff cocktail in utter defeat.  Even the cotton skirt was laid around the base. Dad's work of art was complete. 

Presents were crammed one after the other under the branches until one spark from a frayed light strand coursed through the aluminum, down the trunk, and then with a loud ‘POOF’ the cotton went up in flames.  Over the din of race cars, we heard a loud stomping and pounding from upstairs.  By the time that we got to the sunroom, it was practically ablaze.  Dad was making desperate but futile efforts to put it out with his bare hands.  Steve and I quickly formed a bucket brigade and put out the fire before Danville Firefighters arrived.  We had become 14-year-old heroes as far as my folks and neighbors were concerned.  The firemen even clapped us on the back in appreciation of our efforts.

New and old traditions 1969

Bob and Dad 1971

So, the aluminum tree was ruined and never replaced.  No more fake trees for us.  It was back to flocked ones.  We moved to a bigger home the following year where Dad spent many hours admiring his traditional tree.  Mom got her way with annual decorator themes and fancy ornaments (since all of the old ones exploded in the fire).  A happy compromise had been achieved.  The story of heroic boys and a Christmas fire was told and retold.  There was one addition to all of the holiday decorations, however.  Hidden behind the living room curtain, out of sight but not too far from reach, was a bright, shiny red home fire extinguisher. 

A Merry Christmas to all, and to all a safe night.