It is almost here again – the Christmas season.
In a few days, the smell of roasting turkey and fragrant dressing will promise savory goodness. Tucking away harvest décor will swiftly follow our second slice of pumpkin pie.
Almost immediately, Christmas lights and ornaments will be dragged from storage and their contents prepared for hanging. Yet underneath the excitement, for many of us, the upcoming season is one of deep inner struggle.
As believers in Christ, we love Christmas. We anticipate the celebrations that focus on the incarnation event and the unfolding, transforming gospel story.
God’s redemption of human beings through the life and work of Jesus Christ is priceless.
At the same time, we struggle with the appearance of red and green tinsel stacked across the aisles from Halloween costumes, and mailboxes stuffed with Santa fliers full of electronic gadgets for sale in mid-October.
By Thanksgiving, we must brave packed malls and watch unending Christmas advertisements punctuate our television viewing.
We long to find the Christ Child, but he is hidden amid the glitz. We strain to hear God’s whispers, but they are drowned by the cadence of commerce.
We flee to our churches to escape, but find that our own altars look more like shop windows than sacred spaces for the corporate worship of God.
We remember simpler days and sweeter moments – like the ones from childhood – when Nativity pageants seemed less polished and finding the star more possible.
One Christmas season in 1957, a lovely young woman sensed this sadness, too. Frances Kipps Spencer (1917-90), daughter of missionary parents, was a member of the Ascension Lutheran Church in Danville, Va.
She shared her concern about the encroaching commercialization of Christmas with her pastor.
Even the church decorations seemed to reflect, rather than speak into, culture. In his wisdom, he suggested that she decorate the church for the coming season.
Frances thought about what decorations could be representative both of the heritage of the Christian faith and the true meaning of Christmas.
She sought to find the church’s ancient and enduring symbols and a way to allow them to tell the story of redemption. What happened was remarkable.
She chose an evergreen tree to represent eternal life, which Jesus came to give us.
She used tiny lights, symbolizing Jesus as “the Light of the world.” She chose the color white to emphasize purity and innocence, and gold to reflect the majesty of the risen Lord.
The ornaments, she decided, would be monograms of Christ – designs that represent his names, work, life and saving acts.
She particularly loved the symbols used by the church throughout the generations because they were interdenominational and belonged to the whole church – the heritage of all Christians.
She called these ornaments “Christ monograms,” or “Chrismons,” and the tree upon which they hung the “Chrismon tree.”
She chose a handful of simple guidelines: The ornaments were to be made by hand, not commercially reproduced. They were to be made in love, remembering the Christ they represented. They were not to be sold, but given only in love.
The first year, she filled the tree with beautiful, handmade ornaments displaying the Greek letters for the name of Christ – Cristos. She hung crosses, and the 4th century “Chi-Rho,” perhaps the oldest symbol for the victorious Christ.
Across the years, members of the Ascension Lutheran Church brought additional ornaments each Christmas season and the tradition began. Today, the tree is filled with hundreds of exquisitely handcrafted ornaments.
Dozens of symbols – anchors, pelicans, fish, arks, stars, bread, cups of water and wine, fleur de lis, angels, doves, mangers, lamps, open Bibles and more – tell the story of the God who loved us and sent his son to redeem us.
This Christmas, many Christians will embrace a new way to celebrate the season of Christ’s birth in their homes.
They will place Chrismons on their trees, make and give them away as meaningful gifts to others, hold special family services or share Christ with others in this special way.
Many churches will erect a Chrismon tree in the sanctuary and incorporate Chrismons in their Advent services to make more vivid the meaning of each week’s focus.
Pastors will connect the themes of December sermons to the symbols, and different age groups will hang their handcrafted, made-in-love gifts on its boughs.
Some churches will open their sanctuaries in the evenings for visitors to view the Chrismon trees as guides explain the symbols hung about their branches that share the story of redemption.
Celebrating Christmas with a Chrismon tree offers an alternative to our culture’s secular view of the holiday. Thoughtful, sacrificial and symbolic, this may be a step toward simplifying and extracting the deepest sacred truths of Christmas.
Karen Bullock is the professor of Christian heritage and director of the Ph.D. program at the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute in Arlington, Texas.
Editor’s note: The official Chrismon site of the Ascension Lutheran Church provides instructions and patterns for making Chrismons. Ascension Lutheran also produced a brief, YouTube video about their Chrismon tree, which is open for viewing at the church each evening throughout the Christmas season.