True Tale of Christmas Terror!

by wjw on December 28, 2013

You know, when I was small, there were two things that really scared me.  One was the threat of nuclear war, and the other was . . . Christmas trees.

I’d like to think that the fear of nuclear war is self-explanatory.  I was raised with air-raid drills and little public-service films, shown to us by our wonderful, caring teachers, that explained what to do if we were accidentally caught outside during a thermonuclear exchange.

Is it any wonder that so many of my generation turned into peaceniks?  I had nightmares about nuclear war well into adulthood.

Perhaps the fear of Christmas trees requires a bit of explanation.  I blame it on those public-service movies again— not only did I watch films in which mere teenagers somehow avoided nuclear incineration through common sense and forethought, I saw public-safety spots that documented the horrors of Christmas trees.

Specifically, Christmas tree fires.  Now I realize that people back then used hazardous old tree lights, or put candles on trees so old and dry they’d turned into solid turpentine, but the message that my three-year-old mind took to heart was that at any time, and for no reason at all, Christmas trees could suddenly EXPLODE AND KILL EVERYONE IN THE HOUSE.

See!  They’re still making movies like this!  Films in which the beautiful tree, welcomed into the home, a symbol of light and warmth and treasure, became an INSTRUMENT OF TERROR AND FLAMING DEATH!

herkimerThis even worked its way into children’s entertainment.  Well do I remember a song called “Herkimer the Lonely Doll,” about a doll that nobody wants until it becomes a hero BY SAVING EVERYONE FROM A DEADLY CHRISTMAS TREE FIRE!  I must have heard that song dozens of times on children’s television programs.  I still vividly recall the distinctive voice of Sterling Holloway singing it.   As a kid, I never found any Roger Corman film as scary as the animated version of that song.

What did those grownups think they were doing by making this stuff?  I sweartagod . . .

My parents weren’t religious, but they did Christmas, as a way of bringing the family together and for the pleasure of seeing me made happy.  And my memories of Christmas are almost entirely happy ones.  However, I tended to view the trees brought into my boyhood home with a degree of suspicion.  I wasn’t afraid of them exactly— I mean, they were just trees, and I wasn’t scared of trees—  but I was wary.  I wasn’t entirely convinced that the trees set up in the corner of the living room might not be some kind of vegetable stalker, just waiting to lull us to sleep before IMMOLATING US IN A FIENDISH ALL-CONSUMING BLAZE!

 I remember lying in my bed at night, staring through the door and down the hallway and trying to decide if the glimmer of light in the hall mirror were the passing headlights of a car, or the INITIAL SPARK THAT WOULD TURN MY HOME INTO A FIERY HOLOCAUST.

I made plans.   I’d wake my parents if I could, but if that weren’t possible . . . remember that the films assured me that a tree could turn into a blazing deadly torch in MERE SECONDS, so I might be cut off . . . anyway, I’d have to clamber up the bookcase to the windows, open the window, somehow release the storm window, and jump out into the snow, through which I would then run to alert a neighbor.

(These plans were as nothing compared to my elaborate scheme for surviving nuclear war.  I was quite the planner.  After all, the public-service spots assured me that anything was survivable through common sense and forethought, even having a Soviet ICBM dropped on my head.)

I eventually outgrew my tree terrors, and I’ve got a tree in the house right now which I have not viewed with any degree of trepidation.  My fear of nuclear war won’t entirely fade as long as nations are run by fallible human beings, but it has receded in to the background, while the foreground is occupied by thoughts of age, illness, and death.

And while I’m still a planner, my plans for avoiding these last remain somewhat tenuous.

What were you scared of when you were little?  And are you still?

Ryan V December 28, 2013 at 8:26 am

I was born on the tail end of the nuclear war, so maybe that’s why I was more amused by it than terrified of it. It’s the ultimate source of dark humor, really! I love happy upbeat songs about the bombs coming for all of us and the incineration we’ll all experience. 😀

I was pretty terrified of isolation and being cut off from anything I knew. It wasn’t hard to imagine, in a tiny town with people who you feel hate you for your beliefs and opinions, and the dead stares they gave when you tried to make them react to you.

I was scared of the people who believed in biblical prophecy than of the stuff itself.

Both of those fears have persisted but they’ve been added to a whole lot more of them and hardened at the same time. Mostly, I’m obsessed with possession in any form now. Being taken over by something else that you can’t control, and sitting there watching while it wreaks havoc, brrr.

Foxessa December 28, 2013 at 7:52 pm

You know, in our community, in all the time I lived in it, with Christmas trees everywhere in the season — our church alone had 8 trees in the nave, a huge one outside of it, another in the basement, not to mention the evergreens of the church’s landscaping in the front and side also strung with lights that were lit up every night through New Years — and NEVER EVER was a Christmas tree bursting into flames reported.

Though here in NYC, in tiny apartments dried out by steam heat, a lot of the trees get thrown out BEFORE Christmas, so fires were probably more likely in that environment than in the ones in which we grew up?

Love, C.

Arno December 29, 2013 at 4:01 am

Dear wjw,

In 1955, when I was 25 years old, a friend dragged me, against my wish, to see Hitchkock’s Psycho. I am living in a private dwelling-house, and still, nearly 54 years later, If I am alone at home and absolutely have to take a shover, I must lock the doors so Psycho’s mother with her bread-knive can’t get in. How is that for the length of a phobia?

Frightenedly your’s, Arno

TRX December 29, 2013 at 4:59 pm

We always had the same tree when I was a kid – it was made of aluminum foil and rods, and stored in cardboard tubes. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that my parents went to a “real” tree.

Dave Bishop December 30, 2013 at 10:27 am

When I was a small child, I was admitted to hospital for a couple of weeks (days?) to have my tonsils out – I think. In one of the beds on my ward was a boy who had suffered burns. I asked one of my fellow patients (a boy of my own age) what had happened to the burns victim. I have never forgotten the reply; it was: “He stood under a bomb” (!)

Obviously, my informant was a little hazy about the nature of bombs but from then on I was terrified at the idea of a bomb burning me!

Larry Hill December 30, 2013 at 8:24 pm

I’m a member of the duck’n’cover generation, so I share your atomic distress. Although it has been a while since I had a nuclear nightmare, I still have vivid memories of my dad telling us sternly in late 1962 to come straight home if we heard an air-raid siren. But the true terror of my youth was of being stabbed in the palm. Sometime in the 50’s there was a Shakespearean drama on TV in which an evil actor stabbed a boy to death with a rapier. To my young eyes that sword hit the kid right in the palm of his outstretched hand and he fell down dead! Hence my mortal horror of exposing my palms to any pointed thing.

wjw December 30, 2013 at 8:37 pm

Dave, it strikes me that the fear of being under a bomb when it goes off is pretty rational, all things considered.

Arno December 31, 2013 at 3:32 am

I made some silly mistakes in the story of my phobia. in year 1955 I was TWENTY years old. I first met Psycho’s mother with her bread-knife in year 1963 when I was 28. So I somehow got the length of my phobia right — must have used both fingers and toes counting.

I hadn’t realized I was already so gaga.

Rosie December 31, 2013 at 4:20 am

My childhood fear was of alien invaders from outer space, especially the kind that make their way to a rural house like mine. The scariest aliens were the kind that kept coming when the hero in the clean white shirt fired his gun at them while the blonde woman clung to his shoulder.

Jerry December 31, 2013 at 6:24 pm

My current fear? Flesh-eating lawyers.

I’m glad, WJW, that at least you liked American Hustle. The rest of your blog was. . . surrealistic. The times we’ve lived through! I’m sure I saw that Brittanica Civil Defense film or its cousin, but it was so sensible and calm that only now does it seem horrific.

Well, the future’s THAT way — better times. Happy New Year, WJW and Entourage, and let’s all enjoy a terrific 2014!

Arno January 1, 2014 at 7:54 am

TRX, The Open Topic was YOUR idea (which I enthusiastically supported). Some weeks ago I tried to reopen our literary discussion about near history. Are you bored about the whole thing already? About politics and propaganda, do understand that politics is largely propaganda: making people BELIEVE as you yourself do. Propagandist who believes on his own agitprop (as the Russians do) is a very bad propagandist indeed.

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