BY BETTE DEWING
More than ever we talk about “bringing people together,” and we need to hear more, infinitely more, about one city Yuletide tradition which does just that, and so much more. It’s those balsam trees which magically light up Park Avenue every year from the first Sunday in December through Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
But many don’t know they are called The Park Avenue Memorial Trees and are there to honor all those who made the ultimate sacrifice in this nation’s wars. Imagine not knowing that! Or that this sacred tradition was begun in December of 1945 by Mrs. Stephen C. Clarke and several other Park Avenue Gold Star mothers who channeled their grief into planting and illuminating first just eight fir trees on the Park Avenue island, to honor their sons and all who gave their lives in World War II. And of course, in all this nation’s wars which so tragically continue.
And the opening tree-lighting ceremony (Hawthorne bushes are there to honor Chanukkah,) has long been held in front of Brick Church, which celebrates its 250th birthday this year (A subject for another column). The Memorial Trees, however, are sponsored and arranged by the Park Avenue Fund citizens group, with Brick Church planning the program of tributes and music that now attracts crowds, including families with children, with nearby blocks designated no-traffic zones for the occasion. The only problem is more elder and disabled people need help getting there and managing the crowded conditions (For yet another column).
But about uniting people, Brick church’s minister, the Rev. Michael Lindvall, had this to say — and about the state of the city and world: “We gather together as a wonderful mix of God’s children — Christians of many denominations, Jews, Muslims, those who believe and those who struggle with belief, and those who cannot believe – know that all are welcome.” He spoke most, of course, about the meaning of the Memorial Trees, but also how “these lights celebrate the great city of New York, its neighborhoods, and our will to become a community in the anonymity and diversity of a huge city. Our gathering here defies all the forces of darkness which would divide us.”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, I think of “community” lost, as local businesses (even supermarkets) that meet everyday needs and rent-regulated homes are driven out by luxury condo and business towers. And yes, healing and schools’ expansions also. So many losses this past year and we must protest future losses of these community lifelines — big time! Shouldn’t faith groups get involved? I might add their own survival prospects might increase if they challenged these, dare I say, powers of darkness?
But back to the Memorial Tree-lighting program. For me the most joyful and inclusive part is the carol-singing led by Brick’s music director, Keith Toth. Ah, singing together, rather than listening to professionals is one of so many drums I’ve been figuratively banging for a very long time.
But, surely the most poignant part of the tree-lighting event is the playing of taps by trumpeter, Thomas Hoyt, to remind us of the Memorial Trees’ true meaning. Related are words from Reverend Lindvail’s concluding prayer:
“Be with all this world’s leaders that at last we must beat all those spears into pruning hooks and swords into plowshares.” It’s up to us to remind them!
Ah, but do experience Park Avenue after sundown this holiday/holy-day season. And may the able-bodied take along those who are not able to get there alone. Take them along wherever – also what the season is all about — all year.