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Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

To Icicle or Not to Icicle? Boomers Answered the Question

The families of baby boomers put up their Christmas trees at various intervals between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. While some families were ready to set up on Thanksgiving weekend, others held a long-standing tradition of decorating the tree along with family and friends on Christmas Eve. For Mister Boomer’s family, relatives and most of his friends, the tree was put up somewhere in between, most often within the first week of December.

When it came to decorating the tree, likewise, there were variations. Some were based on ethnic and family traditions, while others embraced a modern aesthetic. One type of decoration that caused endless debate among Mister Boomer’s family and friends was the addition of icicles to the tree. “Icicles” were ribbons of tinsel, approximately 12-18 inches long. Sold in packages, icicles were inexpensive enough to discard each year, so a fresh batch could be purchased annually. When draped over tree branches from the center of each strand, the icicles were representation of real icicles hanging from outdoor tree branches. These icicles, though, were of the no-drip variety. Instead, the metallic finish caught the glow of the colored lights on the tree and made it sparkle.

With such an auspicious visual presence, why would tinsel on a tree be controversial? Mister Boomer has discovered, through very unscientific anecdotal surveys (i.e., he asked fellow boomers), that many boomers experienced the same arguments in their family as there were in Mister B’s. These arguments all centered around three questions:

To icicle or not to icicle?
If yes, how much?
Did you hang them correctly?

More than likely our parents carried over their family traditions to their new families. In the 1950s and early ’60s, icicles were pretty much the standard way of finishing tree decorating. Chances are most boomers can look at family photos from those decades and see tinsel-draped trees. So for many, the question of not to “icicle” the tree didn’t come up until the mid- to late-sixties.

How much tinsel was appropriate was another story. Some families put so much tinsel on their trees that the tree disappeared under a silver veil. Others carefully placed single strands here and there on the ends of certain select branches to highlight the tree’s silhouette. In the early days, Mister Boomer’s family generally fell somewhere in between the two. Ornaments hung on the tree were a mixture of family heirlooms “from the old country” along with newly purchased glass balls. Mister B, for one, preferred to see every light, ornament and tree branch without a lot of silver interference.

Some neighbors, and Mister B’s godparents, fell into the more icicles camp — at least in the early days. On annual holiday visits to family friends and relatives, Mister B looked forward to going to his godparents’ house. They lived in a classic Craftsman home, and their tree was always decorated in a traditional Eastern European manner. An electric train circled at the base of the tree, and the abundance of icicles reflected the warm orange, red, blue and green of the large Christmas bulbs. They often used the tree as the only source of light in the room, and the warm colors glowed and sparkled like a quintessential definition of Christmas Magic. It was as welcome a sight for Mister B as the plate of fresh-baked cookies his godmother had on hand. However, though he could appreciate the style in their home’s context, in his own home Mister B thought icicle usage should be selective and complementary.

Children sit next to a live Christmas tree with a light treatment of tinsel, around 1960.

Children sit next to a live Christmas tree with a light treatment of tinsel, around 1960.

Many arguments erupted in the Mister Boomer household over the “correct” way to hang icicles on the tree. Mister B’s sister, in particular, was quick to anger if she perceived a “bunch” of icicles dropped haphazardly (in her estimation) as opposed to single ribbons carefully draped in symmetric strands, in groupings of no more than three or four at any one branch. Though she was the youngest, Sister Boomer had no qualms about admonishing Mister B and Brother Boomer about their hanging technique, and wouldn’t let up until the offending patch was “corrected.”

Through the years, Mister B’s family, like many others, used less icicles. Was it simply a change of style over time, the labor-intensive task that the tinsel entailed, or the mess of leftover tinsel on the tree when it came time to drag it out to the curb? Whatever the reason, even though tinsel is still sold today, you don’t see it used as much as you did back in the early boomer days.

What was the story in your family, boomers? Did you place icicles on your trees?

posted by Mister B in Holidays,Pop Culture History and have Comment (1)