"The key to the whole thing is having that rotating light," says Dave Peterson, who enjoys his mid-century Christmases in a San Jose Eichler.
"Oh, and the color wheels!" Donna Natsoulas exclaims. "Never have enough color wheels!"
The colored lights explain why silver trees are best, says Gary Gand, who owns two mid-century modern homes. Nothing reflects colors like pure silver.
Strings of electric lights are inadvisable for aluminum trees because they can cause a short—or worse.
Tony and Donna Natsoulas, who set up three aluminum trees every season—two silver, one lime-green—go all out with ornaments. Tony, a sculptor, hangs some of his ceramic fish on the trees, and Donna pulls from an extensive collection she's been assembling since childhood, including Christopher Radko ornaments of space aliens and flying saucers.
Many of their ornaments hark from the mid-'50s, and the theme continues on the floor, Donna says. "We set up the 1950s villages under the tree every year, and never tire of it all."
Dave and Lynne Peterson decorate their aluminum tree, a four-foot, tabletop model they bought for a mere $20 at Walgreen's a decade ago, simply. An aluminum tree generates its own glow, so it doesn't need much appliqué. The Petersons stick to a single color of shiny ball ornaments, and add a few icicles. "We don't decorate it the traditional way, that's for sure," Dave says.
Ornaments and other Christmas décor with mid-century themes have started popping up in gift shops and online—abstract mid-century-styled ball ornaments, even a gingerbread house with a butterfly roof.
Travis Smith, a modern furnishings dealer and author of the book 'Kitschmasland: Christmas Decor from the 1950s through the 1970s' (Schiffer Publishing, 2005), suggests arranging pixie elf dolls from the 1960s around the base of the tree, or placing light-up Santas on the kitchen counter.
In many Eichler neighborhoods, including Petersons', many people add a holiday feeling to the streetscape by arranging colored lights behind the opaque glass walls of their atriums. "It creates an interesting effect because of the way the glass is cut," Peterson says.
Gary and Joan Gand enjoy the glow their aluminum tree and color wheel cast into their backyard. "You can go out and play in the snow and see this aluminum pylon calling out into space and changing different colors," Gary says. "It's like a seven-foot-tall lava lamp."
Photos: David Toerge, Ernie Braun; and courtesy Jerry Waak and the Wisconsin Historical Society and its museum collection, Joe Kapler, Donna and Tony Natsoulas, Michelle McGee, Shane Hood, Kristen Heaslett, Mike Seratt, Becky Haycox, Jenny Markley, Nathan Wilber, Amy Atkins, and Alexa Westerfield
• Want your own aluminum tree and color wheel? For mid-century originals, keep an eye on eBay auctions online. For brand-new models, check out these sites for starters: oaktreeent.com, yuletideexpressions.com, hammacher.com, as well as eBay.com.