The Tumultuous History of Tinsel

PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images
PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images

When December rolls around, we find ourselves asking the same questions: What’s in figgy pudding? Why do I need to make the Yuletide gay? And what is tinsel exactly?

That last question is only slightly less mystifying than the first two. Many of us have seen tinsel—if not in person, then in one of the countless holiday movies and television specials that air this time of year. It’s the stringy, shiny, silvery stuff that’s hung up as decoration, primarily on Christmas trees. But what is it made of? And why is it associated with the holiday season? This is where the seemingly simple decoration gets complicated.

Tinsel is one of the cheaper items used to trim trees today, but that wasn’t always the case. In 17th century Germany, the first Christmas trees were embellished with tinsel made from real silver pressed into strips. These early Christmas trees were also decorated with real, lit candles, and the silver combined with the flickering firelight created a twinkly effect that worked as a precursor to modern-day string lights.

Silver tinsel did have its drawbacks. It was expensive, so only the wealthiest families had access to it. And those who did have enough money to own tinsel had a limited window to use it, as the metal often tarnished before December 25.

By the early 1900s, the Christmas traditions imported by German immigrants had become mainstream in the U.S. Americans were looking for affordable ways to beautify the evergreens in their living rooms, so manufacturers started making tinsel out of aluminum and copper. The updated decorations produced the same festive sparkle as the silver versions, but for a fraction of the price; also, they could be reused year after year. But they weren’t perfect: The aluminum paper in tinsel was extremely flammable, making it a disastrous choice for dry trees decorated with lights. When World War I began, copper production was funneled toward the war effort and tinsel disappeared from holiday displays.

Its absence turned out to be temporary. Despite centuries of hiccups, makers of holiday decor still believed tinsel deserved a place in modern Christmas celebrations. They just needed to come up with the right material to use, something that could be hung in every home without any backlash. In the early 20th century, the clear choice was lead.

Lead revived tinsel from obscurity, and soon it was embraced as a standard Christmas component along with ornaments and electric lights. It became so popular in the 1950s and ‘60s that tinsel is often thought of as a mid-century fad rather than a tradition that’s been around as long as Christmas trees themselves.

With so many synthetic decorations becoming available around Christmastime, tinsel made from metal was considered one of the safer items to have in the home. A 1959 newspaper article on holiday safety reads: “Tinsel is fairly safe, because even if kiddies decide to swallow it, it will not cause poisoning.”

As we know today, tinsel made from lead isn’t “fairly safe.” Lead that gets ingested or absorbed through the skin can cause headaches, vomiting, constipation, and in extreme cases, brain and kidney damage. Young children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning.

In the 1970s, the U.S. government started setting limits on how much lead can be in consumer products, and in 1972, the FDA came to an agreement with tinsel manufacturers that production of the lead product would cease.

It may not be as en vogue as it was 60 years ago, but tinsel still resurfaces every holiday season. So if the tinsel we use today isn’t made from silver, copper, aluminum, or lead, what is it? The answer is polyvinyl chloride. Industrial machines shred shiny ribbons of the plastic to make the wispy strands that add a bit of glamour to Christmas trees. Plastic tinsel isn’t as elegant as the kind made from real metal, and it’s lightweight, so it’s less likely to stay put after it’s hung over a pine branch. For these reasons, PVC tinsel never caught on to the degree of its predecessor, but it still succeeds in bringing vintage bling to the holidays without poisoning your family.

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

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Amazon
As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

10 Surprising Facts About Wham!’s 'Last Christmas'

Michael Putland/Getty Images
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Over the course of his illustrious career, George Michael gave the world many gifts. One that keeps on giving is “Last Christmas,” the 1984 holiday classic by Wham!, Michael's pop duo with Andrew Ridgeley. “Last Christmas” is such a uniquely beloved song that it inspired a 2019 film of the same name. That’s just one interesting part of the “Last Christmas” story. Read on for 10 fascinating facts about this seasonal synth-pop favorite.

1. George Michael wrote "Last Christmas" in his childhood bedroom.

“Last Christmas” was born one day in 1984 when George Michael and Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley were visiting Michael’s parents. While they were sitting around watching TV, Michael suddenly dashed upstairs to his childhood bedroom and composed the modern Xmas classic in about an hour. “George had performed musical alchemy, distilling the essence of Christmas into music,” Ridgeley said. “Adding a lyric which told the tale of betrayed love was a masterstroke and, as he did so often, he touched hearts."

2. “Last Christmas” isn’t really a Christmas song.

There’s nothing in “Last Christmas” about Santa, reindeer, trees, snow, or anything we typically associate with the holiday. Rather, the song is about a failed romance that just happens to have begun on December 25, when Michael gave someone his heart, and ended on December 26, when this ungrateful person “gave it away.”

3. George Michael wrote and produced the song—but that’s not all.

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By the time Wham! recorded “Last Christmas” in August (yes, August) 1984, Michael had taken full control of the group. In addition to writing and producing the song, Michael insisted on playing the Roland Juno-60 synth in the studio. “George wasn’t a musician,” engineer Chris Porter said. “It was a laborious process, because he was literally playing the keyboards with two or three fingers.” Michael even jangled those sweet sleigh bells himself.

4. “Last Christmas” didn’t reach #1 on the UK charts.

As the movie Love Actually reminds us, scoring a Christmas #1 in the UK is a really big deal. Unfortunately, “Last Christmas” didn’t give Wham! that honor. It stalled at #2, and to this day it has the distinction of being the highest-selling UK single of all time to not reach #1.

5. George Michael sang on the song that kept “Last Christmas” at #2.

“Last Christmas” was bested on the UK charts by Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star charity single benefiting Ethiopian famine relief. Michael sang on “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and was so committed to the cause that he donated his profits from “Last Christmas” to helping the African nation.

6. George Michael was sued for plagiarism over “Last Christmas.”

In the mid-1980s, the publishing company Dick James Music sued George Michael on behalf of the writers of “Can’t Smile Without You,” a schmaltzy love song recorded by The Carpenters and Barry Manilow, among others. According to Chris Porter, the recording engineer on “Last Christmas,” the suit was dismissed after a musicologist presented 60-plus songs that have a similar chord progression and melody.

7. "Last Christmas" has been covered by a lot of other artists.

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Jimmy Eat World, Hilary Duff, Good Charlotte, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen, Gwen Stefani, and Taylor Swift are just a few of the artists who’ve covered “Last Christmas” over the years. The strangest rendition may be the 2006 dance version by the Swedish CGI character Crazy Frog, which reached #16 on the UK charts.

8. Some people make a concerted effort to avoid hearing “Last Christmas.”

While millions of people delight in hearing “Last Christmas” every year, an internet game called Whamageddon encourages players to avoid the song from December 1 to 24. The rules are simple: Once you hear the original Wham! version of “Last Christmas” (remixes and covers don’t count), you’re out. You then admit defeat on social media with the hashtag #Whamageddon and wait for your friends to suffer the same fate. Note: The rules prohibit you from “deliberately sending your friends to Whamhalla.”

9. “Last Christmas” finally charted in America following George Michael’s death in 2016.

Back in 1984, “Last Christmas” wasn’t released as a commercial single in the United States, and therefore it wasn’t eligible for the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, Billboard changed its rules in 1998, and in the wake of George Michael’s unexpected death on Christmas Day 2016, the song finally made its Hot 100 debut. In December 2018, it reentered the charts and peaked at #25.

10. George Michael was involved in 2019's Last Christmas movie.

November 2019 saw the release of Paul Feig's Last Christmas, a romantic comedy inspired by the song starring Game of Thrones's Emilia Clarke. Producer David Livingstone came up with the idea while George Michael was still alive, and when he pitched the pop star on the project, he was given the greenlight—with one condition: Michael stipulated that actress and author Emma Thompson write the movie. Thompson co-authored the story and the screenplay, and she even wound up playing a supporting role.