Friday, December 08, 2006

A Christmas of Innocence

Some of my best childhood Christmas memories were of the Living Christmas Tree at Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

The minister of music, Gene Sutherland, would put on a Christmas extravaganza every year that included a 50-foot Christmas tree packed with singers. Starting at the bottom, each row would have successively fewer singers, until the very top row, where a single female singer always stood, like the angel atop the tree.

Typically, there were several weeks of performances, for which practice would start in the early fall. Accompanying an array of Christmas songs would be various stage acts as well, usually incorporating more singers and children.

Since my parents were active in the choir, they were both routinely part of the Living Christmas Tree each year. I don't think my Mom did it every year, but I know my Dad did. Dad was always on the second row from the top - a row of only two people - right below the angel. I always felt that this meant he garnered a position of importance within the hierarchy of the Walnut Street Choir. I was proud to be his son.

My memories of the Living Christmas Tree are warm and cozy - good music, great visual effects, and that latent feeling of excitement that seems to stick in every child's mind throughout the month of December.

I guess my favorite Living Christmas Tree year was 1987 - the only year I was involved in the production. I was asked that year by Gene Sutherland to play a role in one of the stage acts. Basically, I stood on stage with a plastic trumpet, and at the appropriate time in the song, I raised the trumpet up as though to herald the birth of the Christ child. There were 3 trumpeters in the skit, rotated between performances among about 5 guys from the youth group.

As the skit/song that heralded Jesus's birth, this was probably the highlight of the entire program. It was a very powerful song, with a spine-tingling climax, and it always received the most raucous and heart-felt applause. In one performance, a black lady got caught up in the spirit and stood up after the striking of the final chord and spontaneously shouted "Hallelujah!" I know it seems odd - and it's quite funny in retrospect - and yet even now, 18 years down the road, I'm getting chills just thinking about it - that feeling of religious ecstasy which that song brought on, and which was put into words by that spontaneous utterance.

I sort of miss being able to feel that feel so caught up in a religious moment like that, where any doubts and any skepticisms are washed clean away, leaving only certainty, comfort, and spiritual bliss.

When we did the last performance that year, I remember walking out into the parking lot with my Dad afterward, heading out to the car. And I remember walking there in that parking lot, the lightposts casting long, orange shadows across the dark pavement, while my breath condensed on the chilly air, and I remember feeling so utterly depressed - maybe more depressed than I had ever felt in my whole life. I didn't even understand it. I wanted to cry.

The reason I was so depressed is because it was over. All that hard work, all the rehearsals, dressing up in the costume, getting to stand there during that powerful song every night, experiencing the warm camaraderie with the other actors, feeling important because I was part of the show that people were flocking to come see - now it was all over. Finished. The tree would come down and be put away in some storage facility until next year. And I might not even get to be in it again. Maybe this was just a one time thing, and they wouldn't ask me next year.

Well, as it turned out, I wasn't in it the next year, and, in fact, I was never in it again. But that wasn't because I wasn't asked. In March of 1988, my grandfather died after a long bout with cancer. Then in the early summer, we moved to Cincinnati.

Nothing was ever quite the same after that. I remember Christmas of 1988, in our new house, and I do recall that particular Christmas with fondness - in fact, I've long said that Christmas, our first in Cincinnati, was the last Christmas of my childhood. It was the last time I remember having that distinct childhood excitement associated with Christmas. It was the last time I really felt consumed by the season.

I was 13 years old.

But, in retrospect, I think the last real Christmas of my childhood was in 1987. Our last Christmas in Louisville, my first and only experience performing in the Living Christmas Tree, and my last Christmas before starting that long, difficult, awkward road that took me through adolescence and young adulthood.

It was the last Christmas of innocence.

And I think the innocence first began to bleed away that cold night in mid-December, when I walked through that parking lot with my Dad, realizing that the show was over. Little did I know, then, that it wasn't just the show that was ending.

I got to see some Living Christmas Tree performances in later years - we would come back to Louisville to visit my grandparents, and we'd go see the show. I guess the last time would have been sometime in the early 1990's.

On doing a little research today, I discovered that Walnut Street no longer does a Living Christmas Tree performance. I know that Gene Sutherland is long gone (he died some years back), and I suppose his successors didn't continue the tradition. I don't know how many years its been since they quit doing it.

Strangely, on doing an Internet search, I came across a different Walnut Street Baptist Church. This one is somewhere in Arkansas.

And, remarkably enough, they have an active and current Living Christmas Tree program.

I don't quite know why, but somehow that's a comforting coincidence.


deine schwester :) said...

You completely failed to mention that I was in The Living Christmas tree and was on the news! :) That might have been the very first Tree, but I'm not sure about that. I don't know if they did it before we moved to Louisville or not. Of course, that's tangential to your little essay there.

You and Jeff Antle. I remember that Tree. Your post made me tear up I have to confess. Very good.

As for Christmas '88 in Cincinnati, was that the year that Dad INSISTED on leaving for Nashville in a snow storm and ran us off the road? Hahahaha.... Good times.

Scott said...

No, that was Christmas 1990, and it was after Christmas...I think it was the day before New Year's Eve, as I recall. I was pissed because we were going to miss the Mt. Carmel New Year's Eve party at the YMCA. And I was miserable because I was totally infatuated and on cloud 9 with Melanie, and I couldn't stand to not see her for a weekend. Seriously, I remember that trip being one of the most miserable experiences of my teenage years, because I was so distraught over being away from Melanie for 4 days.

Anonymous said...

Gene's successor, Doug Crawley, did the tree every year. Doug's successor, Hiram Rollo, has alternated off and on every year since. From a choral sound perspective, it's much better without the tree because you can only hear yourself when in the tree. I went to the Christmas program on Saturday afternoon and it was still powerful and moving, I just missed the lights. I also loved hearing the 'oos' and 'ahs' as the tree was uncovered.

Scott said...

I see. Thanks for clarifying. Why do they alternate? Just to make it more appealing when they do have it?

su Padre said...

The first tree was shorter and was all wood! I don't remember the year. Then the next year, the big steel tree was put in place.

We started with two or three performances I think. Then it jumpted to 10 or 12. I think we were doing 16 the last year that I did it. I didn't sing in it after 1984. They may have gotten to 20 performances. Anyway, you felt bad when it was "over". Imagine if it had only been done once, like most church Christmas programs. I always thought that it was very anticlimatic when you would work throughout the fall for a Christmas program that was over in about 60 minutes. What I especially liked about the LCT was that it was NOT over after only one performance or two. Eventually, they were using shifts, though many people did them all. Gene Sutherland was a genius of performance and preparation.

Joey said...

Do you happen to know what happened to Gene Sutherland's daughter Debbie? I worked with her in Elizabethtown many years ago. She was one of my favorite people ever! I lost track of her a long time ago, and I'd love to get in touch.

Scott said...

Joey, thanks for reading. No, unfortunately I don't know what has become of Gene Sutherland or his family.

Anonymous said...

Ok I randomly happened upon your blog ... true Gene is not the minister of music anymore ... but he is alive and well he was the Sr. Adult minister at the church until about 4 years ago. I ran into him at the opera not a month ago. He and his wife Ann are both doing well. WSBC stopped doing the tree about 4 years ago as well membership has dwindled in the choir as musical tastes have changed. They do have a Christmas program but it's not the same ...

Scott said...

Thanks for the update, anon. It's good to hear that Gene Sutherland is still alive. Not sure why I thought he was dead. Obviously rumors of his demise were greatly exaggerated :)

Annette said...

Brother Gene is serving as our interim minister of music (Living Hope Baptist Church) in Fern Creek, Ky. Anne visits about once every month or two, but still attends WSBC. She can usually be seen in the choir during their televised church service on Sunday mornings.

Scott said...

Thanks for providing the update, Annette. Amazing that he's still going strong! I remember him as an older man in the 1980s, but he must have been much younger than I realized as a 12-year-old.

Anonymous said...

Wow. How fun to stumble upon this gold nugget along the Google rabbit trail. We are a rare breed, "the Children of the WSBC Living Christmas Tree." I think I was in that tree as well. But I don't remember what I was... a puppet maybe? A snowflake? Were there turtlenecks? I don't remember. But I do remember being really excited about having meals in the cafeteria. Anyway, thank you for this piece.
P.S. If you're still in Cincy, you might get a kick out of this- my parents are still (occasionally) in touch with Papa Gene and brought him up to see "Awaited" a few years ago.
P.P.S. I always thought he was super old, too. But now my kids think I'm super old. :)

Scott said...

Thanks for the comment, Kelly. It's nice to know there are others out there with these fond memories!

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