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.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2015.

Why Do People Say "Jesus H. Christ," and Where Did the "H" Come From?

IHC monogram: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain. Background: iStock/vectortatu
IHC monogram: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain. Background: iStock/vectortatu

Spencer Alexander McDaniel:

Well, first, let us talk about where the name "Jesus Christ" comes from. The name Jesus is an Anglicized form of the Latin name Iesus, which is in turn a Latinized form of the ancient Greek name Ἰησοῦς (Iēsoũs), which is, in turn, a Hellenized form of Jesus's original name in ancient Palestinian Aramaic, which was יֵשׁוּעַ (yēšūă‘), a shortened form of the earlier Hebrew name יְהוֹשֻׁעַ (y'hoshuaʿ), which means "Yahweh is Salvation."

y'hoshuaʿ is the original Hebrew name of the hero Joshua, the central figure in the Book of Joshua in the Old Testament. Consequently, yēšūă‘ was one of the most common male given names in Judaea and Galilee during the early part of the first century CE when Jesus was alive. There are even multiple other people with the exact same name mentioned in the New Testament, including Jesus Barabbas in the Gospel of Mark and Jesus Justus, an apostle mentioned in the Book of Acts and in the Pauline Epistles.

Although people today often treat the word Christ as though it is Jesus's last name, it is actually not a name at all, but rather an epithet (i.e. a descriptive title). The English word Christ is an Anglicized form of the Latin word Christus, which is, in turn, a Latinized form of the ancient Greek word Χριστός (Christós), meaning "anointed one." The word Χριστός is used in the New Testament as a Greek translation of the Hebrew title מָשִׁיחַ (māšîaḥ), which has roughly the same meaning.

In antiquity, the title of māšîaḥ was not exclusively specific to any one particular person; instead, it was a generic title that could be applied to anyone who was regarded as fulfilling the role of God's anointed. For instance, in Isaiah 45:1, the title is applied to Cyrus the Great, the shah-in-shah of the Achaemenid Empire, who freed the Jews from captivity in Babylon after he captured the city in 539 BCE and allowed them to return home to rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem.

Now that we have that covered, we can proceed to explain where the phrase "Jesus H. Christ" most likely comes from. Most Christians are familiar with the Chi Rho monogram. If you are not familiar with it, here it is:

It is composed of the capital forms of the Greek letters chi ⟨Χ⟩ and rho ⟨Ρ⟩, the first two letters of the Greek word Χριστός, superimposed over each other. It is a sort of clever abbreviation that was used by early Christians to signify "Jesus" without having to write out his full name.

There is, however, another monogram used to represent Jesus that many people are less familiar with: the IHϹ monogram. Here is one form of it:

IHC monogram
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While the Chi Rho monogram is composed of the capital forms of the first two letters of the Greek word Χριστός, the IHϹ monogram is composed of the first three letters of Ἰησοῦς, which, if you recall, is the Greek spelling of the name Jesus.

The first letter is the Greek letter iota ⟨I ι⟩, which looks like the Latin letter ⟨I⟩ and makes the [i] sound as in the word machine, or sometimes the consonantal [j] sound as in the word yellow. The second letter is the Greek letter eta, which makes the long E sound, but which looks like the Latin letter H ⟨H η⟩. The third and final letter is the lunate sigma ⟨Ϲ ϲ⟩, a form of the Greek letter sigma which looks extremely similar to the Latin letter ⟨C⟩ and makes the [s] sound as in the word soft.

These are the first three letters of the name Ἰησοῦς, the Greek spelling of the name Jesus used in the original Greek text of the New Testament. At some point, however, presumably sometime in the early 19th century, ignorant Americans who were accustomed to the Latin alphabet and who knew nothing of the Greek alphabet mistook the letters of the IHϹ monogram for the Latin letters J, H, and C. They concluded that the J must stand for "Jesus" and the C must stand for "Christ," but then no one could figure out what the H stood for. Apparently, some people just concluded, "Hey, I guess H must be his middle initial!"

Eventually, the phrase "Jesus H. Christ" became something of a joke and it began to be used as a mild expletive. In his autobiography, the American author Mark Twain (a.k.a. Samuel Langhorne Clemens; lived 1835–1910) observed that the phrase was already in common use when he was still a young lad. Twain tells a humorous anecdote of how, in around 1847, when he was apprenticed to a printer, the evangelical preacher Alexander Campbell, the leader of the "Restoration Movement," ordered the printer to whom the young Samuel Clemens was apprenticed to print some pamphlets for one of his sermons.

Unfortunately, the printer accidentally dropped a few words and, in order to avoid having to reset three whole pages of text, made space to fill in the missing words by abbreviating the name "Jesus Christ" to simply "J. C." at one point in the text. The pious Reverend Campbell, however, insisted that the printer must not "diminish" the name of the Lord; he insisted that he needed to include the full name, even if it meant resetting three whole pages of already set text. The printer reset the text, but, because he was annoyed by the reverend, instead of changing the text of the pamphlet to say simply "Jesus Christ," he changed it to say "Jesus H. Christ."

It is important to note that Mark Twain's story is not the origin of the phrase, but it is an early piece of evidence of the phrase being used.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Who Has Jurisdiction for Crimes Committed in Space?

iStock/nedelcupaul
iStock/nedelcupaul

It's 2050. Humans have mastered commercial space travel. Hundreds of people pay thousands of dollars to be sent into orbit in a spaceship. Maybe some decide to help colonize Mars.

Then, trouble. A jilted spouse. A smuggled firearm. Perhaps a struggle followed by suffocation. A space traveler is found dead on board a ship or on the Red Planet. Who has jurisdiction over such crimes? Is there such a thing as a cosmic Hercule Poirot? Could someone fall through the cracks and get away with space murder?

To date, no one has been victim of a space crime. But because no one nation can lay claim to ownership of space, the idea of a criminal offense committed outside of our atmosphere is something people have already given some thought to.

According to NASA engineer and instructor Robert Frost, the language of law for galactic felonies would be the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. In Article VIII of the treaty, nations engaging in space exploration agree that they will bear responsibility for the actions of personnel aboard their craft. In other words, if a privatized shuttle from China sees a fight break out among crew members, leaving one injured, China would be the entity responsible for handling legal repercussions.

That varies slightly with the International Space Station, or ISS, which is home to a number of personnel from different nations. In the case of the ISS, an intergovernmental agreement signed in 1998 mandates that the home country of the offender will handle any investigation or prosecution. If the victim is a national of another country, that country will have the right to inquire as to the criminal status of the offender and seek to have jurisdiction over the matter if they feel justice isn't being meted out.

In most cases, space crime sprees would be treated the same as if an offender was traveling in a foreign country or in international waters. If you're a U.S. citizen and decide to bludgeon someone at sea or on the Moon, the various international agreements and national laws would determine how you get prosecuted. (Assuming, of course, you returned to Earth to answer the charges.)

Space crimes pose another intriguing wrinkle. In terra firma investigations, authorities can secure crime scenes, question witnesses, and preserve evidence. Aboard a spaceship or on a distant planet, these procedures would be difficult to perform, and almost impossible to do in a timely fashion. Even if a criminal investigator is on Mars, low gravity will affect blood spatter and bodies may even decay at a different rate than they do on Earth. While an American may be found liable for murder, proving it was malicious and not the result of the dangerous environment would give any prosecutor a headache. A defense attorney, on the other hand, would have a field day questioning defective spacesuits or toxic exposure to strange space chemicals.

Then again, prosecutors may not have to concern themselves with evidence. Thanks to airlocks and restrictive suits, the movement of space travelers is highly monitored. It would be hard to make any plausible deniability about one's whereabouts.

The closest thing to space crime that law enforcement has yet encountered may be crimes committed in Antarctica, the frigid and isolated continent that's unaffiliated with any country but operates under the Antarctic Treaty signed by 54 nations. The agreement declares that the suspect is likely under their home country's jurisdiction. In some cases, the country owning the research station where the alleged crime took place steps in. In 2018, a Russian researcher at Bellingshausen Station on King George Island went after his victim with a knife in the station's dining room. He was charged in Russia, though reports indicate the case has since been dropped. And in 2000, an Australian astrophysicist suspected of being fatally poisoned had an autopsy performed in New Zealand. The exam showed he had ingested methanol, but it remains unknown whether he did so accidentally or whether someone gave it to him. New Zealand police were unable to determine the source.

A person committing murder in space would certainly be held responsible. But whether they'd ever be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt remains very much up in—and beyond—the air.

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