The Flaming Tree of January

Provincetown Celebrates Re-Rooters Day

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by Steve Desroches

The Pilgrim Monument’s Christmas lights have gone dim. The fireworks blasted over the harbor to signal the New Year. The crowds of holiday revelers are gone. Thus begins the quietest time of year in Provincetown as the Cape tip slides into the beauty and solitude of January as the hardy, year-round residents hunker down to rest and recharge before the tourist season perks up again with the crocuses and spring peepers of April.
Indeed, it would appear that the holidays are over, as with the passing of the Epiphany, even those that celebrate “Little Christmas” are done. But leave it to Provincetown to have a holiday all its own to close out the season. Each January 7 Provincetown celebrates Re-Rooters Day, a mad cap blend of art, politics, and bohemian aesthetics with both a little flair and flare.

The uniquely Provincetown holiday began in 1983 when artist Jay Critchley was at the town dump, when it quite literally was a dump and not the organized transfer station of modern day. A conceptual artist who creates in a variety of formats and genres, including performance, Critchley has long integrated his environmental activism and commitment to community into his works. And the Provincetown landfill was ripe for finding discarded elements for his latest ideas. On this particular day, while traversing the mound of garbage, Critchley noticed all the discarded Christmas trees and began to place them upright all over the giant modern-day midden trying to re-root these trees to see if they would come back to life. The next year he began to put them around town and held the first Re-Rooters Day ceremony, holding the highly ritualized service near Ciro and Sal’s restaurant and then moved it to its current home on the flats of the East End in 1985.

Image courtesy of Jay Critchley.

At the core of Re-Rooters Day and its ceremony, which takes place at sunset in any and every kind of weather, is a sense of renewal. Critchley builds a small boat, something he says came to him back when Re-Rooters Day was founded, as discarded pieces of wooden boats were easy to find around town. In that boat he places an old Christmas tree, and those who come to the ceremony bring non-toxic items to burn that symbolize something from the past year they’d like to shed. Like any ritual, there is a corresponding textual element and a call and response chant, followed by Critchley, dressed like a fabulous Mad Hatter in hip waders, dragging the boat out into the harbor and setting it on fire as the congregants sing. All of this occurs with a sweeping panoramic backdrop of the Provincetown skyline.

“The original idea was a personal ritual to purge, to cleanse,” says Critchley. “A rebirthing of a new energy. I never publicized it. I just did it. This was before social media, so word didn’t spread as fast. Those that knew about it came. Some years it would be five people, others 50. Now, a couple of times a week, all year, people bring it up to me in some way.”

Born and raised in Forestville, Connecticut, spending many influential and inspiring summers close to nature on Huntley Island in Long Island Sound at his aunt and uncle’s home, which had no electricity or running water, Critchley moved to Provincetown in 1975. And over his time here he’s been a prolific artist and community activist, creating attention-gathering works like his Sand Car Series, where he left a sand-crusted Dodge Coronet 500 station wagon in the MacMillan Wharf parking lot for the summers of 1981 and 1982, and his Theater in the Ground @ Septic Space project, where he turned his old cesspool in the yard of his Carnes Lane home into a tiny performance venue. He’s also created the Provincetown Community Compact, a nonprofit to support the arts, environment, and health on the Outer Cape, and of course, he is the force behind the annual Swim for Life, an event he sees as intimately tied to Re-Rooters Day for its rituals related to the environment, community, and a rebirth. He’s been the driving force behind so many memorable moments and exhibitions, most in Provincetown have a story about Critchley.

Image courtesy of Jay Critchley.

Coming from a large Irish-Catholic family, ritual is important to Critchley, as it’s such a large component of his cultural and personal background, and that influence is easily recognized in the Re-Rooters Day celebration. While the holiday is impish and playful, it’s also rooted in political satire and an editorial lyricism. The International Re-Rooters Society (IRS) presents the event itself, one of many corporations founded by Critchley that he utilizes to give himself the “authority” to speak and act in an overly corporate culture, a recurring aspect of his work. Each year he develops a theme and a corresponding Ten Commandments based on concepts and events that defined the previous year as well as the buzzwords of the day. Some of the commandments from last year’s Re-Rooters Day included:

“Thou shalt not fat check countryless donor maintenance bullying race-blind retroambulative franchised hair extensions” and “Thou shalt keep holy post-combustion gender fluid kleptocrats jomo-ing deregulated preemptive creation stories.”

Critchley also utilizes re-written Christmas carols that fit the themes. All of the writing work is really a poetry element, says Critchley, and upon further reflection, he recognizes an Allen Ginsberg influence to it all as well as a play on corporate gobbledygook. The result is that any Re-Rooters Day looks like a bundled-up coven following a Merry Prankster participating in a chanting ritual to welcome to the new age whose spell is so powerful the co-opted pagan symbol of an evergreen tree spontaneously combusts. It’s the written words that bring Re-Rooters Day its meaning, tradition, and humor to a town that revels in consistently defying convention and creating new ways of thinking.

“It’s a real series of intentions,” says Critchley. “It’s a way for me to dig deeper into my core of feelings of anger about what’s going on with the environment and what’s going on in the world. It’s a way to identify the events of the previous year by putting words in this juxtaposition, new words, a comingling of words. I’m trying to make sense of the world in a way that challenges myself to think outside of expectations. It brings you deeper into the present.”

The 36th Annual Re-Rooters Day will be celebrated on Monday, January 7, 2019 at sunset. For more information visit jaycritchley.com/re-rooters.