Heritage/History Lifestyle

History Feature: Deck the Halls

Vintage aluminum Christmas trees. Photo courtesy of Transylvania Heritage Museum

Vintage Aluminum Christmas Trees Return to Brevard

By Lauren Stepp

If you had chatted with Rebecca Suddeth earlier this fall, she probably would have told you about that time a wood-burning locomotive named Teapot ran off the tracks near Brevard. Or, maybe she would have pulled out an artifact or two from Gloucester Lumber Company, Ecusta Mill or some other key player in the 162-year history of Transylvania County. After all, she is the executive director of the Transylvania Heritage Museum (THM). But right now, all Suddeth can think about is jingle bells.

You see, when the Yuletide season rolls around, THM is transformed into a winter wonderland. Rather than display dog-eared photos and dusty relics from yesteryear, the museum showcases a small army of vintage aluminum Christmas trees. The exhibition is formally known as The (World-Renowned) Aluminum Tree and Aesthetically Challenged Seasonal Ornament Museum and Research Center—or ATOM for short—and is the world’s only museum dedicated to vintage aluminum Christmas trees.

Sure, this may all sound a little zany and over the top. But ATOM is wildly popular, attracting some 400 to 500 guests each year.
“ATOM provides an influx of visitors into the county at a time when things have slowed tremendously,” says Suddeth. “Thus, providing needed stimulus to both the museum and our local economy.”

THM can’t take all the credit, though. According to local lore, this quirky tradition dates back to 1991, when home designer Stephen Jackson stumbled upon an aluminum Christmas tree destined for the landfill. A lover of all things outlandish, Jackson gleefully adopted the tree and invited friends to adorn it with the most “aesthetically challenged” ornaments they could find. In the Christmases to follow, he added more and more trees to his collection.

Several years ago, THM got involved in the revelry, first borrowing and eventually purchasing Jackson’s entire faux forest. The museum now owns 35 sparkly conifers, which staff and volunteers deck in festive trimmings each November and display through mid-January.

The specific decorations vary from season to season. In the past, THM has showcased an emoji tree, an I Love Lucy tree and even a tree modeled after the video game Minecraft. But this year, museum elves are determined to transport visitors to a bygone era with their “Fun and Fabulous ‘50s” theme. Inspired by the decade of rock ‘n’ roll, poodle skirts and Elvis Presley, the museum has been shrouded in iconic pastels, vintage Shiny Brite ornaments and other mid-century modern trimmings.

Put together, these sights remind guests of “simpler, happier times,” says Suddeth. “We like for people to reminisce and remember the past with smiles and, yes, sometimes even tears.”

The (World-Renowned) Aluminum Tree and Aesthetically Challenged Seasonal Ornament Museum and Research Center runs through January 20 at the Transylvania Heritage Museum (189 West Main Street, Brevard). The museum is open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 12–4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call 828.884.2347 or visit TransylvaniaHeritage.org.

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