I love tinsel. The more, the merrier. I want gobs of it drooping from every branch of the Christmas tree. It is sleek and shiny. It shimmers like rain and descends from the tree’s branches, lending a radiant luster to all below. Tinsel transforms the ordinary into the fantastic. In fact, you might say fantastique, since tinsel is to Christmas what Cirque du Soleil is to the big top.
Tinsel, which originally came from Germany and is called Lametta, has been around for centuries. At first, it was made from silver and used to adorn the bible and nativity scenes. Then someone had the brilliant idea of decorating Christmas trees with it. I like to think this insight came from kids running around and throwing strands at each other until some of it landed on the tree. And voilà, an industry was born.
But silver tarnishes quickly, so aluminum replaced silver. By the 1960s, lead replaced aluminum, giving tinsel that distinctively gray, metallic shine.
Ironically, the thing that made tinsel so wonderful caused its downfall. The federal government asked manufacturers not to produce lead-based tinsel anymore. Apparently, they were afraid kids would eat it. Personally, the only thing I have ever seen eat tinsel is a vacuum cleaner, but that’s me.
In the mid 1970s, tinsel began being made with polyvinyl chloride or PVC. I’m not a chemist, but you might as well have required that Christmas trees be sprayed with malathion before people tied them to the roofs of their cars and brought them home. As the German butcher said, that’s not the worst. At the same time, manufacturers came out with tinsel in various colors along with tinsel’s thick, dim-witted cousin, the garland, which also came in assorted colors, including –incredibly–pink and white.
The feds aren’t the only people responsible for the demise of tinsel, of course. So are environmentalists, who are rendered apoplectic at the thought of wayward tinsel rumbling across the landscape like toxic tumbleweed. Parents, too, have played a part. Many are not just overly protective of their children but obsessive to the point of manipulation, as if exposure to something as artificial as tinsel could ruin their kids’ cognitive development and, thus, their chances of getting into Harvard.
And then there are the ideologues, who view tinsel as a vestige of a wasteful, colonial past that exploited workers, consumers, women, and minorities. Think I’m exaggerating? Look at the latest hullabaloo over Baby, It’s Cold Outside (1944).
So, there are many Grinches in the story of the rise and fall of tinsel. But this is as it should be, since it reflects the nature of life after the fall. The world is filled with villains, sin, and death. The story of tinsel is no different and serves as a reminder. Reminder of what?
Bruno Bettelheim (1903-90) argued that the best fairytales for children are those that acknowledge the dark side, including death. Children need to be reminded of this side, since it is already part of their psychological makeup. That’s why tinsel and things like it–light and joyful–are important. They give kids and the rest of us an experience of something greater: a loving presence that acts justly even when the ogre or stepmother in the story does not.
An example of this delicate balance comes to mind from the late 1960s when my father bought a three-foot, silver, aluminum Christmas tree. He decorated it with tinsel and added a rotating floor lamp that shone various colors on the tree. It was the gaudiest and most wonderful thing in the world, even after our dog chewed the heads off Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar in the nativity scene.
It was the last time we had tinsel.