The Living Christmas Tree
Every year, around this time, someone asks me why I hate Christmas music, usually as I stuff earplugs in and layer headphones blasting podcasts over that. I try not to be a spoil sport. I try to hear as little of it as possible while simultaneously letting other people have their Christmas cheer. I order my Christmas presents online as best I can. I get my groceries for the month through Instacart and eat the upcharge for the service with a smile. It’s worth the thirty extra dollars to not spend an hour in trigger hell, watching people with elf ear hats panic about there being no extra heavy cream on the shelves. I try and remember that it’s no one else’s fault that the Living Christmas Tree ruined this time of year for me. Well, Living Christmas Tree and M.
To start, I need you to imagine an enormous set of choir risers in the form of a giant triangle. Think two stories high, maybe more, supported by scaffolding put together by whoever had a set of power tools in the church congregation. Now imagine a railing in front of every riser, and then in your mind, cover the space from the railing to the next riser down in fake evergreen branches. Now it’s a Christmas tree. That includes lights, tinsel, and of course ornaments. The lucky choir members who have the time to spend are made to look like ornaments by wearing bright silver, polyester smocks with a red ruff around the top. Now place the whole thing in the pulpit of an Evangelical church. That’s the Living Christmas Tree.
If anything, it was like a three-ring circus. The tree itself was the centerpiece, and on either side there were other acts going on throughout the show. On one side there were skits happening, both modern skits about the meaning of Christmas and re-enactments of the birth of Christ. On the other, soloists and the band performed. The thing built on itself until it included a full play, a living nativity scene, several soloists, and lights that flashed in time to the music.
Every year my mother performed in the Living Christmas Tree. This included multiple performances, dozens of extra practices, and lots and lots of jazzed up Christmas music, played out sometimes twice a day as the holiday drew near. I can imagine the show was fun for audience members who attended once or twice, but by the time the actual performances rolled around, I was always so over Christmas music I could scream.
I was in it once, the year I turned sixteen and could have my mother sign the waiver that stated we wouldn’t hold the church liable if I fell off the scaffolding in the back, which was no small risk. It would have been fine if every choir member had stayed put, but when soloists needed to go to the small stage on one of the sides of the tree, they had to crawl out the back of their riser and down the scaffolding to get to it, shedding their ornament costume as they went. They then had to crawl back up the way they came before the next song started. Hence, the waivers were necessary for every member of the choir.
As fate would have it, the one year I was old enough to perform I was also a soloist. My mother didn’t speak to me for a full week when it was announced. We’d both auditioned. She’d been selected to perform in a trio with two other choir members. I’d been selected for a solo in one of the jazzier songs. Truth be told, my mother never could swing, no matter how hard she tried.
So, I got the joy of having a mother who refused to speak to me on performance night, which I’ll remind you, was most of every week in the run up to Christmas, along with the fun of crawling down six feet of scaffolding in the dark, scrambling to my place on stage, and then crawling back through the metal and fake branches into the risers before the next song started.
And then, of course, I was often raped not long after, but that was a given. Any time I was in the church for an extended period of time there was a chance M would be there, waiting for me. He knew my mother would stay long after the performance was over chatting and that it would be easy to pull me away with comfort applied to the wound of her behavior.
The year I was in the show was not the worst of it. By then he knew I was moving and had lost interest, likely looking for another child to replace me. No, the worst was when I was not in the choir rehearsals that dragged on hours after the usual end time. I’d have to wait outside the rehearsal room, or at least somewhere near enough to know when they’d ended. That usually translated to a staircase not far from the rehearsal room that echoed with choir practice all the way down to the ground floor.
That was where M usually found me, sitting not just alone, but in a place people rarely frequented. Even though it was the closest staircase to the choir room, members usually opted for the main stairs, chatting all the way down, and then pooling in the lobby while they waited for their children to find them. There were four or five of us choir kids, but the others usually hung out in the youth room playing pool and listening to more modern Christian music. The two who were around most often were tiny bullies, and I regularly stayed away from them as best I could.
So I sat in the stairwell, Christmas music echoing through it, and either read or did my homework until I heard the choir door bang open. I’d race to the base of the stairs, through the kitchen and dining hall and into the lobby in time to see my mom descending the stairs. I always hoped that if she saw I was ready we could just leave, but it never worked like that, and M knew it.
He knew that my mother had no interest in getting me home on time for a reasonable amount of sleep before school. He knew that my mother was an open wound that continuously festered. He knew that it wouldn’t be hard to get me to open up to him, to become the comfort I needed so badly. From there, it was just a matter of time.
I think you can see where I’m going here. M’s sexual abuse started when I was twelve. There was only one year that I was in the choir rather than sitting outside it, waiting to go home. For three years, starting in November, M would have hours of access to me in that stairwell, Christmas music echoing loudly, anything said either shouted or unintelligible, any cries or pleas to stop lost in the carols that now play in every store for nearly three months.
I try to be nice about it. I try not to be a spoil sport. I know it’s not anyone’s problem but mine. Still, I can’t help but bristle when someone tells me to get in the Christmas spirit, to not be such a bah humbug, while every rendition of “Oh Holy Night” or “Joy to the World” or “Little Drummer Boy” shoves me back into that stairwell where I could not be heard. It feels like I’m still not heard, like I’m still screaming over the cacophony for a moment of peace.
So I order my Christmas presents online, I bring earplugs everywhere, just in case, and I try to let everyone else have their fun. But if I’m honest, every time someone points out that I’m not as peppy or excited as they feel I should be, I wonder what would happen if I told them why.