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.

Autumn Equinox: The Science Behind the First Day of Fall

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On September 22, the Sun will shine directly over the equator—the midpoint of the Earth. (For 2018, this moment will happen at 9:54 p.m. ET.) The whole world will thus experience a day and night of equal length. In the Northern Hemisphere, we call this the autumn equinox. It marks the first day of fall. Around the world, people are marking the day with ceremonies, some of them ancient (and some less so).

You might be wondering two things: 1. Why on almost every other day of the year (the vernal equinox being the other exception) do different parts of the world have days and nights of differing length? 2. What do they call the day in the Southern Hemisphere?

A DAY AT THE BEACH

The answer to each of these questions resides in the Earth's axial tilt. The easiest way to imagine that tilt is to think about tanning on the beach. (Stay with me here.) If you lay on your stomach, your back gets blasted by the Sun. You don't wait 30 minutes then flop over and call it a day. Rather, as you tan, every once in a while, you shift positions a little. Maybe you lay a bit more on one side. Maybe you lift a shoulder, move a leg a little. Why? Because you want the Sun to shine directly on a different part of you. You want an even tan.

It might seem a little silly when you think about it. The Sun is a giant fusion reactor 93 million miles away. Solar radiation is hitting your entire back and arms and legs and so on whether or not you adjust your shoulder just so. But you adjust, and it really does improve your tan, and you know this instinctively.

People light candles during the autumn equinox celebration at Neris River waterfront in Vilnius, Lithuania after sunset on September 21, 2013.
People light candles during the autumn equinox celebration at Neris River waterfront in Vilnius, Lithuania after sunset on September 21, 2013.
PETRAS MALUKAS, AFP/Getty Images

The Earth works a lot like that, except it's operating by physics, not instinct. If there were no tilt, only one line of latitude would ever receive the most direct blast of sunlight: the equator. As the Earth revolved around the Sun, the planet would be bathed in sunlight, but it would only be the equator that would always get the most direct hit (and the darkest tan). But the Earth does have a tilt. Shove a pole through the planet with one end sticking out the North Pole and one end sticking out the South, and angle the whole thing by 23.5 degrees. That's the grade of Earth's tilt.

Now spin our little skewered Earth and place it in orbit around the Sun. At various points in the orbit, the Sun will shine directly on different latitudes. It will shine directly on the equator twice in a complete orbit—the fall and spring equinoxes—and at various points in the year, the most direct blast of sunlight will slide up or down. The highest latitude receiving direct sunlight is called the Tropic of Cancer. The lowest point is the Tropic of Capricorn. The poles, you will note, are snow white. They have, if you will, a terrible tan—and that's because they never receive solar radiation from a directly overhead Sun (even during the long polar summer, when the Sun never sinks below the horizon).

WHEN DO THE SEASONS CHANGE?

A Maya priestess conducts an autumn equinox ceremony at El Salvador's Cihuatan Archeological Park.
A Maya priestess conducts an autumn equinox ceremony at El Salvador's Cihuatan Archeological Park.
Jose CABEZAS, AFP/Getty Images

The seasons have nothing to do with the Earth's distance from the Sun. Axial tilt is the reason for the seasons. The Sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer (66.5 degrees latitude in the Northern Hemisphere) on June 21 or 22. When that occurs, the Northern Hemisphere is in the summer solstice. The days grow long and hot. As the year elapses, the days slowly get shorter and cooler as summer gives way to autumn. On September 21 or 22, the Sun's direct light has reached the equator. Days and night reach parity, and because the Sun is hitting the whole world head-on, every latitude experiences this simultaneously.

On December 21 or 22, the Sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere, meaning the Northern Hemisphere is receiving the least sunlight it will get all year. The Northern Hemisphere is therefore in winter solstice. Our days are short and nights are long. Parity will again be reached on March 21 or 22, the vernal equinox for the Northern Hemisphere, and the whole process will repeat itself.

Members of The Druid Order of London conduct a ceremony on Primrose Hill to celebrate the Autumn Equinox on September 22, 2008 in London, England.
Members of The Druid Order of London conduct a ceremony on Primrose Hill to celebrate the Autumn Equinox on September 22, 2008 in London, England. The Druid Order of London, which was founded in Oxford in 1245, has been conducting the Autumn Equinox ceremony on Primrose Hill since 1717.
Matt Cardy, Getty Images

Now reverse all of this for the Southern Hemisphere. When we're at autumnal equinox, they're at vernal equinox. Happy first day of spring, Southern Hemisphere!

And welcome to fall, Northern Hemisphere! Enjoy this long day of sunlight, because dark days are ahead. You'll get less and less light until the winter solstice, and the days will grow colder. Take solace, though, in knowing that the whole world is experiencing the very same thing. Now it's the Southern Hemisphere's turn to get ready to spend some time at the beach.

This story first ran in 2016.

The 13 Scariest Haunted Houses in America

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Horror lovers will feel right at home in New York or Ohio. Attractions in those states claim four out of 13 spots on Halloween expert Larry Kirchner’s new list of America’s scariest haunted houses. Drawing upon his 25 years of experience designing and installing Halloween attractions, Kirchner releases the list on his website, Hauntworld.com, each year.

This year, Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses in Ulster Park, New York, tops the list. A historic 18th-century manor provides a spooky backdrop to the haunt, which includes a theatrical hayride, corn maze, eight haunted attractions, and escape rooms. “Dr. Dark’s Circus Side Show” (with everyone’s favorite: creepy clowns) will be one of the new themes offered this year, and another new section called “Two Raven’s Manor” will feature stunt actors and a magician.

The runner-up on Kirchner’s list is Field of Screams in Mountville, Pennsylvania. The attraction promises its hayride will be “the most disturbing ride of your life through thick rows of corn.” Expect to see demented doctors, evil nurses, chainsaw and ax murderers, and miscellaneous monsters.

Check out the full list of attractions below, and head to Haunt World’s website for additional details.

1. Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses: Ulster Park, New York
2. Field of Screams: Mountville, Pennsylvania
3. The Dent Schoolhouse: Cincinnati, Ohio
4. 13th Gate: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
5. Netherworld: Atlanta, Georgia
6. Nightmare on 13th: Salt Lake City, Utah
7. Haunted Schoolhouse & Laboratory: Akron, Ohio
8. Bennett’s Curse: Baltimore, Maryland
9. Haunted Overload: Lee, New Hampshire
10. Erebus: Pontiac, Michigan
11. Hell’s Gate: Lockport, Illinois
12. The Darkness: St. Louis, Missouri
13. Bayville Screampark: Bayville, New York

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