What Exactly is Christmas Tree Flocking?

iStock.com/Spiderstock
iStock.com/Spiderstock

Of the many curious holiday traditions (figgy pudding? wassailing?), one of the oddest has to be spraying down small trees with a mixture of adhesive and cellulose fibers to satisfy our longing for a white Christmas.

That’s what’s happening when you adorn a tree with artificial snow, otherwise known as flocking. And yet, when decorated and lit up, there’s something beautiful and warmly nostalgic about a well-flocked Christmas tree. Here’s how professionals manufacture this Christmas miracle.  

The History of Flocking

We’ve been trying to get that snowy look on Christmas trees for longer than you might think, dating back to the 1800s using substances like flour or cotton. A 1929 issue of Popular Mechanics recommended varnish, corn starch, and flakes of the silicate mineral mica. 

But tree flocking as we know it really caught on in the late 1950s and 1960s, along with aluminum trees and other glitzy (if not natural-looking) decor of the post-war boom. General Mills marketed Sno-Flok home kits, to be applied using a gun that attached to a vacuum cleaner.

Such home kits are not so popular these days, says Tom Leonard, owner of Peak Seasons, one of the country's largest manufacturers of Christmas tree lots supplies and tree flock. Flocking itself, however, has retained a level of appeal. “Sunbelt states use a lot of it because there’s no snow there,” Leonard tells Mental Floss. “It’s tremendously popular. The West Coast, the South, and the Southeast, the vast majority of it is sold in those zones.”

The Science of Flocking

So what exactly is flocking? At its core, flocking means attaching tiny fibers to a surface to create texture (the process is also used in fashion, home decor, and crafts). The Peak Seasons recipe includes paper pulp as fiber, corn starch as adhesive, and boron as a flame retardant—there’s a safety benefit to flocking.

And the company makes a lot of it. Leonard says they're the largest manufacturer of flock in the United States and Europe. “I don’t want to share [how much], but we sell lots of flock. I mean truckloads and truckloads.”

Based in sunny Riverside, California, Peak Seasons starts with paper and a grinder. “It’s like a big roll of toilet paper and it weighs a ton and you feed it into a machine and it comes out a powder,” Leonard says. The exception is certain bright colors—flock comes in white, black, pink, ice blue, royal blue, red, green, gold, and purple—which require cotton fibers instead of paper to hold the dye. The final product is almost like baby powder, shipped all over the country in large, cement-bag-sized bags.

From there you need to affix the stuff in a nice even coat, which is where flock machines like the Mighty Sno-Blower come in. They’re basically big tanks that hold varying amounts of flock depending on the model, plus a mechanism at the bottom to fluff up the powder. The machine then pumps the powder through a hose, and a gun at the end mixes it with a mist of water.

And that’s how flock is born.

The Art of Flocking

You don’t have to go with a professional flocker, or even use manufactured flock. There are all sorts of DIY recipes that include things like soap flakes or even desiccated coconut flakes. But if you do go pro, you want to be in the hands of someone like Paul Iantosca, who has been flocking trees in the Boston area for 20 years.

Flocking one tree in bright purple (white is still most popular), Iantosca first sprays it down with water. Then, in an area closed off with plastic sheeting, he fires up the blower and blasts the tree evenly with what looks like a purple fog. The stuff gets everywhere. He wears a mask to keep it out of his nose, but some high-volume flockers wear full protective coveralls. 

The tricky part to flocking is that you can’t tell if you got it right until it dries. When it goes on, it’s cold and wet like paste. But as it dries, the Christmas magic kicks in and it puffs up, turning into fluffy white (or, in this case, purple) fuzz firmly affixed to the needles.

There are, of course, pitfalls. Not enough water, and the flocking falls off and makes a huge mess. A flocked tree can’t get wet a second time. “It won’t dry again. It’s disgusting actually,” Iantosca says. Also, when you flock a tree, the color highlights its flaws. A janky tree turns into a weird, uneven shrub.

But if you get it right and string it up with lights, you’ve got a real stunner on your hands. Iantosca’s had flocked trees for his own home for the past 10 years and his kids won’t let him go back.

“When you plug that thing in, it absolutely glows inside," he says. "It’s unbelievable.”

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Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

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Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

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Why Do We Say 'Trick or Treat' on Halloween?

"Give us candy, or else!"
"Give us candy, or else!"
kali9/iStock via Getty Images

Each Halloween, hordes of costumed kids trudge from door to door exclaiming the same phrase at each stop: “Trick or treat!” It’s really a treat-only affair, since adults always shell out candy and children rarely have tricks up their sleeves (except perhaps for those dressed as magicians). In other words, they may as well save half a breath and simply shout “Treat!”

So, where did the term come from?

Halloween Hijinks

Halloween wasn’t always about cosplay and chocolate bars. During the 19th century, Irish and Scottish children celebrated the holiday by wreaking (mostly harmless) havoc on their neighbors—jamming hot cabbage into a keyhole to stink up someone’s house, frightening passersby with turnips carved to look ghoulish, etc.

According to History.com, kids didn’t give up that annual mischief when they immigrated to the U.S., and Americans happily co-opted the tradition. Toppled outhouses and trampled vegetable gardens soon gave way to more violent hijinks—like the time a Kansas woman almost died in a car crash after kids rubbed candle wax on streetcar tracks, for example—and these pranks escalated during the Great Depression.

Almost as terrifying as a turnip.London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In short, tricks were a huge part of Halloween throughout the early 20th century. So, too, were treats. For All Souls’ Day in the Middle Ages, people went door-to-door offering prayers for the dead in exchange for food or money, a tradition known as souling. A similar custom from 19th-century Scotland, called guising, entailed exchanging jokes or songs for goodies. While it’s not proven that modern treat-begging is directly derived from either souling or guising, the practice of visiting your neighbors for an edible handout around Halloween has existed in some form or another for centuries.

Canada Coins a Catchphrase

With tricks and treats on everyone’s minds come October, it was only a matter of time before someone combined them into a single catchphrase. Based on the earliest known written references to trick or treat, this may have happened in Canada during the 1920s. As Merriam-Webster reports, a Saskatchewan newspaper first mentioned the words together in an article from 1923. “Hallowe’en passed off very quietly here,” it read. "'Treats' not 'tricks' were the order of the evening." By 1927, young trick-or-treaters had adopted the phrase themselves.

"Hallowe’en provided an opportunity for real strenuous fun," Alberta’s Lethbridge Herald reported in 1927. "No real damage was done except to the temper of some who had to hunt for wagon wheels, gates, wagons, barrels, etc., much of which decorated the front street. The youthful tormentors were at back door and front demanding edible plunder by the word 'trick or treat,' to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing."

The phrase appeared in Michigan’s Bay City Times the following year, describing how children uttered "the fatal ultimatum 'Tricks or treats!'" to blackmail their neighbors into handing out sweets.

Donald Duck's Endorsement

Sugar rationing brought trick-or-treating to a temporary halt during World War II, but the tradition (and the phrase itself) had gained popularity once again by the early 1950s—with some help from candy companies and a few beloved pop culture characters. Charles Schulz depicted the Peanuts gang cavorting around town in costume for a Halloween comic strip in 1951; and Huey, Dewey, and Louie got to go trick-or-treating in a 1952 Donald Duck cartoon titled Trick or Treat.

Fortunately, the treat part of the phrase has thoroughly overtaken the trick part. But if you stuff rank cabbage in your neighbor’s keyhole this Halloween, we won’t tell.

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