Monday, December 04, 2006

Gathering Round, and IN, the Christmas Tree

I'll bet my Christmas tree is bigger than yours.

It isn't mine, per se, but I feel as attached to it as anything in the world. You have a seven-foot tree? HAH! I laugh at your pitiful shrubbery! This sucker is thirty-five feet tall. No, I'm not cheating with an outside tree versus an inside tree (besides, there aren't any native Christmas-tree-like evergreens that grow anywhere near here. I don't blame them). This tree IS indoors. OK, it's not actually in my house, but still....

It has a steel superstructure, plywood platforms a mere foot in depth, two sets of stairs that only a crazy person would climb, I forget how many tiers, perhaps a hundred square yards of greenery, and more lights & electricity running through it than my old stomping grounds in Middletown, Rhode Island (I told you before, we stomp whenever we darn well feel like it. I stomp here, too, but it's not nearly as satisfying). Let's not forget about three dozen microphones, and that it holds about 110 people. Empty, it weighs 6,000 pounds. With all those people on it, I'm not sure, as it would involve asking a lot of women how much they weigh. The Eye Wit has enough wit to know better than that, but surely, we're talking around another 15,000 pounds, easily. So, this is a tree that overall weighs in at eleven tons (or more, if you have the guts to ask the women. Good luck with that).

What kind of Christmas tree is THAT?? Those of you who've seen one of these beasties have likely already caught on. If not, man, you don't pay much attention, do you?

So, have you ever heard of a "Living Christmas Tree" or a "Singing Christmas Tree"? That's what I'm describing. They look something like this:
This is a picture of our actual tree at FirstSarasota Church (not recent enough, blast it, it was switched to mini-lights years ago). That's the 26-piece orchestra at the bottom, and another tier has been added at the bottom to accommodate the singers you see standing. In between, you can make out the upper level of the stage area; that's where I make my contribution. One of the things that makes the FirstSarasota presentation different than most is that in the roughly one hour & forty-five minute program, we have what amounts to a thirty-five to forty minute one-act play running through it (usually broken up into about eight scenes). Instead of the classic Christmas pageant thing, a fine gentleman by the name of Skip Martin writes & directs an original script every year. It focuses, usually, on one person's life and their struggle to come to know what Christmas is really about, what it's not, and why it's so important that God sent His Son. This year, it's about a turn-of-the-twentieth century woman who's so wrapped up in the activities and festivities around Christmas, that she's completely lost touch with why, supposedly, she does all those things. Too busy during the holidays, no time to think & reflect. It hits home with a lot of people. I play a minister who helps her understand what she's missing; by the end, she's decided that her perspective needs altering, and that all the parties & such were fine.... but not if one is doing them for the wrong reasons. And she does something about it.

"Would that life was that simple" you may say. In a lot of ways it is; the things that are most fundamentally important are choices, choices that we have to reaffirm daily to hold onto. One example is the unfortunate number of people that have no concept of how my spouse & I have been married over twenty-four years, especially considering that there have been some terribly difficult circumstances to deal with (read: me). It's because we keep choosing to love one another on a daily basis. the same goes for getting carried away with what the commercial world has made of Christmas. Go ahead, get caught up in the rush, go into debt, and exhaust yourself if you want to.... and not enjoy a single moment of the season. Or, draw some lines, and don't feel like you owe everyone an explanation. I realize that is isn't easy, especially to keep it that way.

Therein lies one of the best gifts of participating in this large program, with beautiful music (played & sung), soloists, an Ensemble, various combinations of singers, Celtic dancers some years, and the play, and all backed up by a very professional technical staff and wonderful volunteers.... We perform this over the first two weekends in December. Naturally, the heaviest rehearsals come right after Thanksgiving, so the participants are gladly giving up a good chunk of the "Christmas season" to do this. I know I'm worn out & have to rest up for days afterwards by the time we finish (four performances in the last two days). It dominates my Christmas, and keeps me focused on the simplest, truest, and most enjoyable aspects of the season. Sure, I miss a lot of parties, I am chronically a bad shopper, and lots of other things. No regrets whatsoever. It's a time to give, and the giving can help you receive far more than you "put in". That's true of every day, of course, but we traditionally (Christians & non-Christians alike) make a big deal out of "presents" this time of year.

But what are the best presents? The ones that are "just right"? The ones that last the longest? I say no to those and similar questions. When all is said and done, it isn't the physical gifts that you give that matter when it comes time for you to leave this world & see the next. No, what matters is what you've written on other peoples hearts. And that is precisely why the Singing Christmas Tree exists. We want to write something that counts, something that lasts forever. What better way to celebrate Christmas?

The heroes of the whole program are the people in the choir who sing up on that thing. First off, they've rehearsed for months, and memorized a LOT of music. It's very uncomfortable to be up there; you have to climb narrow, steep stairs to get to each tier. What you stand on is a plywood (sturdy stuff) board that really is about a foot from front to back. If you aren't six feet tall, the "standard" height, then you're handed a block of dense Styrofoam that's about twelve by eighteen inches to stand on, on top of the skinny board. It's cramped, you can hardly move, and if you're tall and have a chest that measures more than 40 inches, the steel bar in front of you presses into your chest. Then there's the heat of the lights; miniatures or not, they cast off a lot of heat. They spend about fifty-five minutes per performance up there (indeed, part of the genesis of the play was to cut down the amount of time they're on the Tree). All while smiling and singing very beautifully. They must love other people a lot to suffer through that, eh? Yes, they do. Ask them why, they'll be glad to tell you.

Me, I'm better off on the floor. Not because I'm unable or unwilling to get up on that thing (honestly, I'd rather not....) or don't have a good singing voice; it's just that my special area of expertise is acting. However, as I try to point out to people, this is a project that's the product of a lot of peoples efforts. I'm not more important than anyone else, I'm just more conspicuous. However, I do generally have more of a chance of ruining the show than most others. Eh, that's what I do. God ain't gonna let me let the rest of the people down and let us let the audience down.

So, why do I ramble on so about this? It's not just another "gig", it's a very special part of my life, and a rare opportunity to bring some light into a lot of peoples lives. And I do mean a lot. Our average total audience in any given year is around 11,000. That's a very large audience for just nine or ten performances. That's just for starters....

I've had the enormous privilege of being a part of this wonderfully positive experience more than once. In fact, this is my thirteenth year out of the thirty-three years they've been doing it, which is beyond my ability to describe how happy it makes me. By the end of our run next Sunday, the cumulative audience who've seen me in the Singing Christmas Tree will number somewhere over 140,000. Wow!

So many stories go along with it, but the best part is this: Every year, whether I travel or not, I always get to spend Christmas with family. A very big, wonderful, loving family. It's the best Christmas present I've ever had, and being there to be a part of it? I think it's the best Christmas present I know how to give. Come see it; you really have to be there.

Lucky me; I am.


PS - I have turned off the "comments must be approved before posting" setting, so any comments you'd like to add from now on (even going back to previous posts) should appear shortly after you enter them. I do welcome your comments & feedback, as well as your ablity to trade comments with others who post. I'll deal with any "problem children" who stir up trouble. My only hard & fast rule: I will not permit personal attacks or abuse of any sort. I value the trust & comfort of you, the people to whom I am so grateful for coming here & reading my ramblings.

So, let the conversations begin!

One other thing: I recently switched to the new version of the blog program. I can't post to it using Internet Explorer anymore; if you've tried to add a comment & it didn't work, it may be an IE conflict with Blogger, (a Google operation). If so, try logging into a G-mail account (if you have one) in another window, then adding the post. Alternatively, use Firefox (which is what I do) or Netscape to open this window. Perhaps IE7 can talk to "new Blogger", but I removed IE7 after I found that it interfered with a lot of my computer's functions.

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