Travis Smith is serious about Christmas kitsch. Not only has he amassed thousands of vintage dime-store holiday ornaments, he's also spent decades rescuing the unwanted homemade Christmas knickknacks that languish on thrift-store shelves. He's documented both in Kitschmasland!: Christmas Decor From the 1950s to the 1970s, a new book that displays three decades of shiny glass and plastic baubles in more than 400 photos. Smith, who now splits his time between the Valley and Washington, D.C., grew up in Phoenix, where Christmas snow came in a shakable plastic globe, and happiness was a box of Shiny Brites from Sprouse-Reitz a holiday tradition he's determined to keep alive.
On taking pity on inanimate objects:
I have great sympathy for kitschy Christmas stuff. A lot of ornaments get a bad rap because they're not intricate blown glass made in Europe. Some of the high-end stuff in my book is really great and worth the big bucks, but I'm more into saving Kitschmas misfits that no one wants from thrift stores because I feel sorry for them. I find myself buying a bag of stuff that I don't want to get one thing in the bag that deserves a home. And it's awful because then I feel sorry for the stuff I don't want but end up donating back to the thrift store. Sad!
On the holiday beauty of dime stores:
Growing up in Phoenix in the '60s and '70s meant our Christmas decorations came from TG&Y, Kmart, Yellow Front, and maybe Skaggs. Once in a while, there'd be a trip to Sears or Montgomery Ward's, but rarely ever a department store like Diamond's or Goldwater's. We were a middle-income family, and for me, garland and glitter looked rich and expensive, and December was the one time of the year where everything got beautiful and glamorous, and it all came from dime stores. It's why I'm a huge fan of Target's holiday department they have amazing stuff for really low prices. Whoever is responsible for that department is an outstanding person.
On naming ornaments:
At our house, we have an aluminum tree that's hung with only the homemade ornaments I find in thrift stores. I call them "bored housewife ornaments." I can't believe how fabulous this tree looks. I normally don't name my ornaments or my trees, but I definitely name the homemade craft ornaments, because they each have their own personality. They're usually named after movie goddesses or female celebrities like Marilyn, and Liz, and the Gabor Sisters. I don't have a favorite; that would be too difficult to decide, and it would be unfair. I might be able to pull together a Top 10 list, but I could never single out just one ornament. The others wouldn't like it.
On those unfortunate repro aluminum trees:
There's a huge difference in the quality of a real, vintage aluminum Christmas tree and one of the new reproduction ones. The original trees were made of real aluminum, which is what gave them that fantastic reflective quality. In fact, they were made by the Reynolds Wrap company the same people who made aluminum foil! Today when you buy a silver tree, it's not the same material, so it doesn't have that great shininess. But vintage trees are hard to find. I was looking for a large vintage pink-flocked tree, and I found a three-footer on eBay last year. But I dropped out of the auction when bidding reached $1,200.
On pinching Christmas pennies:
I don't like paying real money for Christmas things. I like a good bargain, and the great thing about Kitschmas is you still can find it at thrift stores. I was at a Savers recently and got a whole cart full of great stuff. But then I left something behind, a Kitschmas misfit that haunted me. I went back for it the next day, and of course it was still there. No one wanted it. It's a made-in-Japan mailbox centerpiece that's missing some of the little glass beads that were stuck to it. But I have a hot glue gun, so I'll be able to bring it back to life.
On the psychology of collecting:
People who collect stuff are usually delving into their childhood memories looking back on a time when they were happier. Sometimes it's like an addiction. With me, I certainly don't need another Christmas decoration, but I still buy stuff every December anyway. I'm at the point now where I have so much stuff that everything can't be displayed; I have to let some of the ornaments and decorations take turns. "Were you on the tree last year? No? Okay, you can be this year." Because collecting never really ends.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Phoenix art and theater scene.