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A tree by any other name

I thought they had the wrong guy. Katie Shepard at the Providence Festival of Trees was asking me to judge Christmas trees.

Me. The guy who once semi-famously "ruined" Christmas for a well-known commercial institution by accepting an invitation to be Santa for a day and write about it. I never got what they were upset about. I gave back the beard, nobody sued, and the gig was better than real work.

The Christmas tree display together with its chi-chi auction/dinner raises almost half a million dollars for community health care each year, so it's for a good cause. Still, I feel like the Marx Brothers being asked to judge the latest exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.

The cavernous building is hung with white lights above tables draped in gray and black. It's the area around the entrance and up and down both sides of the room where my finely honed judge's radar is focused. I am trying to take in a fantastical, glittery explosion of ornate trees and holiday bric-a-brac; no, an art installation on the theme of TREE run wild, a scene so overwhelming to the senses it takes a moment to slip back into analytical mode.

Consider, for example, "The Enchanted Garden." This highly theatrical, red-and-green, fairy-tale creation looks like something out of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's scene shop on a good week, although it's credited to Juanita Ford, Jane Perry, Clo Kennedy, Linda Mariani and Jackie Ford, all of whom are, as far as I know, just people.

There are the usual reindeer, a big sleigh o' gifts, an empty red throne, presumably for S. Claus, people with clipboards like me wandering about.

Here is "A Christmas in Heaven," an amazing amalgamation of the pagan symbolism of the conifer tree into a Christian cosmology involving gold and white light, doves of peace and sleeping cherubs, all framed by a white portico with ionic columns. Personally, I find the large volume titled "BOOK OF LIFE" a bit literal, but still, there is a certain wild, visionary thing going here.

I also like Donna Patello's "Moose Gone Wild," a tree that isn't the biggest or most beautiful but whose energy jumps out at you in the form of big, cartoonish globes of red and greenish gold, some as large as bowling balls. And Janice Cox's "Peace on Earth" wreath with a peace sign-wearing, guiltar-slinging hippie dude out of 1967. And Jan Jackson's "Fishing at Moose Lodge," in which an animal that is either a plaid-antlered reindeer or Snoopy is wielding a fishing rod and riding in a canoe.

For a mantle display, I go with Chickadee Gift and Garden's "Twilight at Polarville," a fireplace with stockings hung with care, co-starring a polar bear, three colorful penguins and a snowy owl in a pear tree.

Minimalism is not much in evidence here. So Kari Swoboda's "Christmas Simplicity" door display stands out, just three hanging disk ornaments under the simple arch of an evergreen garland.

Me, I'm into high concept stuff like Ian Lambert's "Pirate Paradise" mini-tree, with its skeletons, its parrots, its duck with an eye patch.

In the shameless commerce division, Carpe DM Marketing's beer tree grabs me. The ornaments are ordinary-looking until you notice that the big round ones hawk Murphy's Red Beer and other suds, and the smaller ones are little pounder glasses and frosty mugs. Under the tree are beer-making kits. I almost passed it by. I think what caught me was the illuminated McTarnahan's Ale sign.

Mail Tribune / Jim Craven A fairy in 'The Enchanted Garden' entry greets visitors to the Providence Festival of Trees, which continues from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at the Medford Armory. - Jim Craven