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9 Old-School Holiday Decorations

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How many of these decorative touches do you remember (or still have stashed in the attic)?

1. READER'S DIGEST CHRISTMAS TREES

Old issues of Reader’s Digest are the Tribbles of the magazine world; left alone on a shelf or in a box they just seem to multiply on their own. This readily available supply of paper made for an inexpensive and time-consuming craft project that kept kids busy enough to give their teacher a breather for an hour or so. By laboriously double-folding each page of the magazine into an isosceles triangle, then gluing the front and back covers together, you could create a small, table-top Christmas tree. Then the real fun began: the decorating. With no restrictions on the amount of spray paint and glitter that could be used, the end result sometimes seemed reflective enough to deflect laser beams.

2. IBM WREATHS

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Remember the early days of computing, when we saved data on floppy disks? Those old dinosaurs were positively futuristic compared to the standard storage medium of the 1950s—punch cards. Regularly (and generically) referred to as “IBM cards,” they were often disposed of most carelessly, despite the sensitive information they contained. (Of course, back then not many average folks had access to a UNIVAC, so identity theft was not a major consideration.)

Used IBM cards were plentiful (and free) in the 1960s and '70s, so fashioning Christmas wreathes out of them helped to keep tons of paper out of landfills. Cynical types at the time were able to find a deeper meaning in such decorations, such as encroaching faceless technology replacing traditional warm holiday cheer, but most of us just enjoyed transforming someone’s free discards into a pretty floral spray.

3. GOD'S EYES

These colored yarn decorations were fairly easy and fun to make, and were frequently an art class school project. Of course, before you could actually start wrapping your sticks in earnest, you always had to first sit through a brief history lesson on the Ojo de Dios and its spiritual connotations in Mexico. Kids still make a variation of these in school and Cub Scouts today, but odds are they don’t use the same type of sticks to construct them as those that were handed out back in the day—pointy wooden skewers that could take an eye out quicker than a Red Ryder BB gun. In some regions, those short wooden lances were called “city chicken sticks,” as they were primarily sold for the purpose of concocting this Midwestern delicacy. As such, and out of necessity, they were sharp enough to easily pierce through large chunks of pork and veal, and God’s eyes never failed to stab you in the hand when unpacking the boxes of Christmas decorations every year.

4. C6 CHRISTMAS LIGHTS

Decorative electric lights have been available since the 1880s, but for many years they were so expensive that they were only seen on trees in wealthy homes and/or town squares. General Electric debuted the C6 ("C" for “conical” and "6" to indicate the diameter of the bulb) tungsten filament straight fluted lamps in 1924. Mass-produced in a variety of colors and popularly priced, the C6 became the de facto holiday decor for both indoor and outdoor use until it went out of production in the mid-1970s. The C6 had its drawbacks, however; the lights worked on a series circuit, meaning if one bulb burned out, the whole string went dark. In many homes, parents uttering a few curse words while going bulb by bulb down a line of darkened lights with increasing frustration, trying to find the faulty one, was as much of a holiday tradition as hanging stockings by the chimney with care.

5. ALUMINUM TREES

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Who would’ve thought that the “space-age” tree of the 1960s that sold for pennies on the dollar at garage sales in the '70s and '80s would become a pricey collectible in the 21st century? The first aluminum Christmas trees were manufactured in 1959 and were not branded as “artificial” trees, but rather “permanent” ones. Busy families didn’t have to worry about hauling a live tree home from the lot and sweeping up fallen needles on New Year’s Day, and assembling the silvery wonder was a group activity that was fun for the whole family. Since electric lights presented a shock hazard on a metal tree, the twinkling color effect was accomplished instead by a rotating color wheel.

6. WINDOW STENCILS

With the magic of Glass Wax, you too could make your home a Window Wonderland—just like the fancy department stores downtown! Those stores, of course, had professional window cleaners to polish the stuff off when the holidays were over. Most parents weren't quite so lucky.

7. MELTED PLASTIC POPCORN DECORATIONS

Properly called “Glitter Plaques,” these holiday decorations were made for over 50 years by the Kage Company of Manchester, Connecticut. The decorative application for the polyethylene pellets came about quite by accident (their official use was to make PE envelopes for bank passbooks and other important documents). The company founder’s daughter was home sick from school one day in the 1950s and started playing with the boxes of colored PE pellets her dad had left at home. She made a chicken shape, baked it on a cookie sheet, and—voilà—a new product line was born. The plaques were sold at W.T. Grant and Woolworth stores throughout the 1960s and '70s and were also popular fundraising items for the Boy and Girl Scouts. Sales eventually dwindled to the point where Kage ceased production of the plaques in 2008.

8. CERAMIC TREES 

The Atlantic Mold Company patented its A-64 Christmas tree mold in 1958 and went on to sell thousands of copies to ceramic shops across the country. Their sales peak was in the 1970s, when ceramics classes were all the rage. Atlantic molds tended to last for more casts than other brands, and the A-64 was the only tree mold that automatically made the topmost hole.

9. SHINY BRITE ORNAMENTS

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The original Shiny Brite glass ornaments were handmade in Germany and imported by Max Eckardt & Sons in New York beginning in 1920. When World War II was on the horizon, Eckardt sensed that importing glass from Europe would be problematic, so he partnered with Corning Glass to mass produce the decorations. Corning used a modified version of the machine that had previously made glass light bulbs to blow the glass balls and then a separate machine “silvered” them (inside and outside, for extra shine) and then lacquered them. When the War caused silver shortages, the plain glass balls were instead painted with pastel colors. Eckardt stopped producing glass ornaments by the 1970s and sold the Shiny Brite name in 1974.

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Chinese New Year
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Some celebrants call it the Spring Festival, a stretch of time that signals the progression of the lunisolar Chinese calendar; others know it as the Chinese New Year. For a 15-day period beginning February 16, China will welcome the Year of the Dog, one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac table.

Sound unfamiliar? No need to worry: Check out 10 facts about how one-sixth of the world's total population rings in the new year.

1. THE HOLIDAY WAS ORIGINALLY MEANT TO SCARE OFF A MONSTER.

Nian at Chinese New Year
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As legend would have it, many of the trademarks of the Chinese New Year are rooted in an ancient fear of Nian, a ferocious monster who would wait until the first day of the year to terrorize villagers. Acting on the advice of a wise old sage, the townspeople used loud noises from drums, fireworks, and the color red to scare him off—all remain components of the celebration today.

2. A LOT OF FAMILIES USE IT AS MOTIVATION TO CLEAN THE HOUSE.

woman ready to clean a home
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While the methods of honoring the Chinese New Year have varied over the years, it originally began as an opportunity for households to cleanse their quarters of "huiqi," or the breaths of those that lingered in the area. Families performed meticulous cleaning rituals to honor deities that they believed would pay them visits. The holiday is still used as a time to get cleaning supplies out, although the work is supposed to be done before it officially begins.

3. IT WILL PROMPT BILLIONS OF TRIPS.

Man waiting for a train.
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Because the Chinese New Year places emphasis on family ties, hundreds of millions of people will use the Lunar period to make the trip home. Accounting for cars, trains, planes, and other methods of transport, the holiday is estimated to prompt nearly three billion trips over the 15-day timeframe.

4. IT INVOLVES A LOT OF SUPERSTITIONS.

Colorful pills and medications
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While not all revelers subscribe to embedded beliefs about what not to do during the Chinese New Year, others try their best to observe some very particular prohibitions. Visiting a hospital or taking medicine is believed to invite ill health; lending or borrowing money will promote debt; crying children can bring about bad luck.

5. SOME PEOPLE RENT BOYFRIENDS OR GIRLFRIENDS TO SOOTHE PARENTS.

Young Asian couple smiling
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In China, it's sometimes frowned upon to remain single as you enter your thirties. When singles return home to visit their parents, some will opt to hire a person to pose as their significant other in order to make it appear like they're in a relationship and avoid parental scolding. Rent-a-boyfriends or girlfriends can get an average of $145 a day.

6. RED ENVELOPES ARE EVERYWHERE.

a person accepting a red envelope
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An often-observed tradition during Spring Festival is to give gifts of red envelopes containing money. (The color red symbolizes energy and fortune.) New bills are expected; old, wrinkled cash is a sign of laziness. People sometimes walk around with cash-stuffed envelopes in case they run into someone they need to give a gift to. If someone offers you an envelope, it's best to accept it with both hands and open it in private.

7. IT CAN CREATE RECORD LEVELS OF SMOG.

fireworks over Beijing's Forbidden City
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Fireworks are a staple of Spring Festival in China, but there's more danger associated with the tradition than explosive mishaps. Cities like Beijing can experience a 15-fold increase in particulate pollution. In 2016, Shanghai banned the lighting of fireworks within the metropolitan area.

8. BLACK CLOTHES ARE A BAD OMEN.

toddler dressed up for Chinese New Year
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So are white clothes. In China, both black and white apparel is traditionally associated with mourning and are to be avoided during the Lunar month. The red, colorful clothes favored for the holiday symbolize good fortune.

9. IT LEADS TO PLANES BEING STUFFED FULL OF CHERRIES.

Bowl of cherries
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Cherries are such a popular food during the Festival that suppliers need to go to extremes in order to meet demand—last year Singapore Airlines flew four chartered jets to Southeast and North Asian areas. More than 300 tons were being delivered in time for the festivities.

10. PANDA EXPRESS IS HOPING IT'LL CATCH ON IN THE STATES.

Box of takeout Chinese food from Panda Express
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Although their Chinese food menu runs more along the lines of Americanized fare, the franchise Panda Express is still hoping the U.S. will get more involved in the festival. The chain is promoting the holiday in its locations by running ad spots and giving away a red envelope containing a gift: a coupon for free food. Aside from a boost in business, Panda Express hopes to raise awareness about the popular holiday in North America.

A version of this story originally ran in 2017.

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