When I was a kid, my mom made a point of always taking me down to the State Capitol for a tour to see the big tree and experience the holiday. I recall those visits with the wonder of a child, sure -- of a massive Christmas tree erected in the center of the rotunda, so tall it thrust up through the second level. It was adorned with all sorts of handmade ornaments from all over the state -- some were fantastic works of amazement created by our state’s finest artists. Others were the work of schoolchildren. I can even recall one year searching out and eventually finding an ornament I had a hand in -- I believe from one of my classes at Geyer Springs Elementary.
We started going when my mom was playing with the River City Band as one of the many groups that fills the rotunda with music through the month of December. In the late 80s and early 90s I had my own chance to perform there with Parkview’s high school band and choir, maybe even the Arkansas Youth Symphony.
In my head I always remember there being a massively large tree jutting up through that round opening on the second floor. But I’ve been challenging my memory lately since viewing this year’s display.
Beyond those bright brass doors, within white hewn marble walls that make the perfect backdrop for the stories-tall red sashes and the bunting of the season -- you’ll find this year’s tree.
The tree -- well, frankly, it’s much punier than I remember. Not that it’s a bad tree -- don’t get me wrong there. It’s a Leland Cypress donated by Dr. and Mrs. Robert Cole from Tom’s Christmas Tree Farm in St. Francis County. It’s gorgeously thick and a good representative of an Arkansas Christmas tree with its 75 ornaments representing each of the state’s 75 counties. But it’s not much larger than what the average Joe has standing in the corner of his living room this Yuletide. Humble, in fact.
I had to actually call my mom to make sure I hadn’t dreamed up the big tree. She confirmed my recollections. We both gather that since the tree is donated, maybe folks are just not donating the really big trees any more. I suppose I should do a little more research and find out why.
So, the ass. Years ago, there was a donation drive to bring in money for a hand carved wooden nativity for the State Capitol Grounds. This was back in the late 1980s… there was a booth at the Arkansas State Fair just inside the main gate where you could stop by, write down your name and address and put down money on what you wanted to donate your money for. Of course people put money on the baby Jesus, on Mary and Joseph and the Three Wise Men and the shepherds and whathaveyou.
My mom decided she wanted to make a donation, so she put her money where she figured no one else would be putting it. She put her money down on the ass.
A few weeks later, she received this strange letter in the mail from the group that was raising that money. It was apparent it was some sort of form letter, but still, it was odd to see the words “thank you for your donation to the ass.” Mom’s still got that letter somewhere.
Years passed, and Mom noticed the wooden nativity hadn’t been put up on the State Capitol Lawn. She wondered what had happened to the display. My mom works hospice, and one of her patients had a son who worked on the grounds, so she asked him if he’d look around and see if he could find out what had happened to it.
A few days later all heck broke loose in the news over the alternative display put up by the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. The newspapers and the television stations all came out to the Capitol and did their stories.
It wasn't long before Mom got an article sent to her in an envelope. Inside was a newspaper clipping with a photo of the nativity scene with the notation “we found your ass!”