Boomers Participated in Holiday Trends and Traditions

Once Thanksgiving was in the rearview mirror, it was time for boomers to ramp up Christmas decorating around the house. In Mister Boomer’s household, the Christmas tree was not purchased until mid-December (it was always a live tree in his house); but there were still decorating jobs inside the house that began the weekend after Thanksgiving, starting with Mister B and his brother wiping the dust off the family advent wreath. This wreath marked the days until Christmas with a candle for each of the preceding four weeks. The one Mister B’s family had was a rectangular black metal base with holders for four candles on the corners; between the red candles were intertwined scrub-brush-fake pine branches and pine cones that were painted with “snow.” It served mainly as a decorative centerpiece on the dining room table. Candles were only lit on each successive Sunday with an accompanying prayer, before the family meal. Space was at a premium, so the candles were extinguished and the unit moved off the table once the meal was served.

Another sure sign that Christmas was on the way was the annual covering of the inside of the front door with either aluminum foil or wrapping paper. For more than a decade this was the designated spot where Christmas cards would be Scotch taped. In the years when Mister B’s mom was in a decorating mood, wide red ribbon was added to make it look like a giant gift package before any cards were put on it. Inevitably, there were certain relatives and family friends who made sure their Christmas card greeting arrived a day or two after Thanksgiving.

Much more fun for Mister B and his siblings was applying Glass Wax stencils to the living room window. This decoration trend lasted for a few years. While the exact timeframe of when this was done escapes Mister B, online sources put its popularity in the 1950s. As current YouTube videos can attest, Mister B, Brother Boomer and his sister each added to the window by dabbing the wax onto a selected stencil with a sponge dipped in the wax. Mister B remembers Santa stencils, reindeer, ornaments, Christmas trees, wreaths and candles. Mister B’s mom watched over the process, stopping the kids from filling the window with stencils. She was directing her vision of an overall design that would be visible from the street.

At one point in his family history, Mister Boomer’s mother took to making some do-it-yourself Christmas decorations. The most successful of these was a wreath fashioned from dry cleaner bags, which were cut into strips and tied around a coat hanger that had been bent into a circular shape. The addition of a red bow completed this mid-century modern design. Mister B does not remember if she found the instructions in a Good Housekeeping article or got the idea from a neighborhood friend.

As the days passed and Christmas approached, Mister Boomer and Brother Boomer were assigned the tasks of getting the boxes of Christmas ornaments out from the basement storage area, and most importantly, untangling the strands of Christmas lights and testing them. It was a bulb-by-bulb search for burn outs, since the lights in the 1950s and early ’60s did not light if one bulb was loose or burned out.

Other house decorations appeared in some years, usually in the form of gold or silver garland festooned along the top molding on the wood panel wall where the sunburst clock resided.

In mid-December, when the Christmas tree was purchased, Mister B’s father untied it from the roof of the car and brought it to the backyard. There, he sawed off a bit of the base of the tree trunk, then hauled it down the stairs to the basement and placed it in a bucket of water. It would remain there for at least twenty-four hours so it could get acclimated to the indoor temperature, which was cooler in the basement, and not immediately drop its needles. Usually on the next day, Mister Boomer and Brother Boomer would help move the furniture, then lay down the tree skirt base and the tree stand in the corner of the room by the front window. Once Mister B’s father got the tree up the stairs and into place in the stand, it was usually up to Mister B to crawl under the tree to secure the stand screws into the trunk base and fill the stand with water. Full decorating could commence after Mister Boomer’s father ran the lights around the tree.

How about you, boomers? What holiday trends of the 1950s and ’60s did your family embrace? When did your interior holiday decorating begin?

Boomers Counted Down the Days

As boomer children, countdowns of various sorts were practically an everyday occurrence. There were seasonal countdowns throughout the school year; as the Space Race got going, the “T-minus …” phrase of the NASA countdown clock became household words; and Top 40 countdowns on your transistor radio played daily. The whole concept of countdowns is on Mister Boomer’s brain this week because a co-worker gave him a countdown clock to install as his screensaver. The countdown has now begun at his workplace for the time next year that Mister B joins the ever-growing number of boomers who have retired. Be that as it may, let’s explore what countdowns meant to boomers forty, fifty, or sixty years ago.

At the start of the school year, the students who couldn’t wait for the next summer vacation might set themselves up a countdown calendar until the next summer vacation, but for most boomers, countdowns became necessary as the holiday season drew near. About this time each year, countdowns cropped up as Thanksgiving approached. In Mister Boomer’s experience, while many boomers enjoyed Thanksgiving, it was more important as the beginning of the countdown to Christmas. Sometime between the Sunday following Thanksgiving and the first Sunday in December marked the beginning of the Advent Calendar for religious households. The Advent Calendar was itself a countdown device, in which the dates varied year to year and also might be of a different duration based on religious denomination. The point is, boomer kids were counting down the days to Christmas, when they could open their gifts from Santa Claus.

Of course, boomers watched the end-of-year countdowns on their family’s TV. For many years that countdown was delivered by Guy Lombardo, until boomer families could afford a second TV in their homes or finally convince their parents to ditch Mr. Auld Lang Syne in favor of Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. A good many boomers watched that countdown for decades.

The drudgery of winter school classes after the holidays necessitated a reminder countdown of the days until summer vacation. Winter or spring breaks did little to replace the ultimate school year countdown to come. By the time May arrived, many a boomer “X’d” out days on a calendar that counted down the time until there would be “no more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks.” As boomers grew, there was the countdown until graduation day. For many more boomers than generations before them, that meant resetting the school countdown clock with college attendance.

When it came time to launch rockets into space, NASA’s live narrated countdowns amped up the excitement of boomers like Mister B, who watched intently on a black and white TV set rolled into his classroom. The phrase, “5,4,2,1… blast off!” became commonplace, especially among boomer boys. NASA preferred “lift off” to “blast off,” as there is a technical definition difference involving using a rocket to “blast off” under its own power as opposed to “lift off” of a manned capsule into space on top of a rocket. NASA used countdowns even before the first manned space flights. In Mister Boomer’s research on the subject, as far as anyone seems to recall, the use of countdowns to mark the launch of rockets was first seen in science fiction literature somewhere in the 1920s. It may be interesting to note that audible countdowns were not employed in the early days of German rocketry prior to and during WWII, then later in the Soviet space program. Instead, silent counts were observed via a clock. The Soviet Union did adopt them after a time, possibly as a way to interest the Russian public in their early besting of the Americans’ space progress.

Countdowns were a regular thing in boomer-era popular music. Boomers listening to their favorite radio stations could hear countdowns of the Top 40, or a DJ could play a countdown of the most requested songs of the week. In 1970, when the last boomers were just six years old, Casey Kasem began airing American Top 40 as a music countdown radio show. The Billboard charts were used to create the countdown lists. The countdown show still exists, with Ryan Seacrest as the host.

Countdowns mark the passage of time, shorter or longer term. It seems only right that boomers, who have witnessed so many countdowns through the years, have faced or now face the countdown to mark the end of their full-time working lives.

How about you, boomers? What did countdowns mean in your lives? Was the countdown to Christmas the most important thing in your life at the time?