December 13th: The Trouble with Tinsel
Invented in Nuremberg in the early 17th Century, tinsel predates most other forms of Christmas decoration, including glass baubles, electric lights and foil-wrapped chocolates. It was originally fashioned from pure silver and used to decorate sculptures, religious icons and nativity scenes, where it represented a starry, night sky. Over the intervening 400 years, tinsel has become progressively less desirable and more polarising, with fashion almost completely casting it aside at the start of the 21st Century.
Having discovered very quickly that tinsel made from pure silver tarnishes quickly (can you imagine trying to polish tinsel?), alternative metals such as copper and aluminium were used. Then lead foil came along. I hardly need to outline the problems associated with this material. By the 1960s lead tinsel had been banned and was duly replaced by PVC film coated with a metallic finish, which is the material mostly used today. For me, the metallic smell of tinsel is one of the most evocative scents of Christmas and I confess to rather liking it. Alas PVC is a type of plastic, so it does not require a crystal ball to predict another, imminent twist in tinsel’s tale.
Many people, myself included, struggle to reconcile themselves with tinsel as a form of Christmas decoration. Like many other goods it’s become cheaper to manufacture and therefore cheaper to buy, thereby losing much of its original charm and cachet. The tinsel of my youth (we’re talking 1980s here) was fine, feathery and draped beautifully across the boughs of a tree, but since then supermarkets and discounters have made the product coarse, gaudy and ubiquitous. Christmas snobs and lovers of tradition abandoned the sparkly stuff in their droves, until three years ago you would struggle to find a decent strand of tinsel in any high street shop.
As in clothing, Christmas trends are cyclical. Along with Rubik’s cubes, dahlias and culottes, tinsel was due a come-back. After a year with no tinsel at all in our shops, I decided to bring it back, this time made in a Welsh factory rather than a Chinese one. I chose daring colours and ‘cuts’ that had not been seen before. Since 2017 tinsel has been a massive hit. Even I find myself looking at it, wondering where I might use a strand here and there to give my home a soupçon of sparkle. In 2018 it is unusual colours such as chocolate brown, clear iridescent and rainbow that are capturing the nation’s imagination.
Whatever you think of tinsel, it has endured for over 400 years, and is likely to survive another. Tinsel’s relatively low cost and ease of manufacture makes it an adaptable, affordable product. The way tinsel reflects light, always its main quality back in the days of candlelight, is unrivalled among Christmas decorations. Now that so many new colours and finishes are available there’s almost a strand for every situation. Take a fresh look, and I defy you not to fall in love with tinsel again. TFG.