By Annette Agnello
In the late 1950’s, Frances Kipps Spencer (1917-1990) of Ascension Lutheran Church in Danville, Virginia, set out to create decorations appropriate for a church Christmas tree. This marked the beginning of Chrismon Trees, which are used in many churches today.
"Chrismon" is an abbreviation for "Christ's Monogram."
In the beginning "Christ's Monogram" was illustrated by the Greek symbol of Chi-Rho, which looks like a capital "P " with an " X " across it. From there the obvious next step were the symbols of the Alpha and Omega. The Chrismon tree soon included most Christian symbols.
On the first Chrismon Tree I saw, all the ornaments were white and gold. Later, silver was added, and some people tried to slip in red and green. Silver was readily accepted, but purists still argue over the red and green.
The trees in churches were quite large, usually as big as the space would hold. That first one I saw was around twelve feet tall. The women's groups in my mother's church made the decorations to show events in Christ's life. Some were as big as 8 inches by 12 inches. Liberty Baptist Church decorated the first Chrismon tree mainly with crosses and stars, with an occasional sheep or crown thrown in for good measure.
As the years passed, the designs grew more elaborate and included other figures from the Bible, such as Moses and John the Baptist, but the tree still told the exclusive Christian story.
The more I learned about the symbols on the trees, the more I enjoyed them. I began to make my own ornaments, on a much more modest scale, many not much than an inch in diameter. I make the ornaments by needlepoint, cross stitch and beadwork for pleasure. I have collected a beautiful collection over the years.
Make Your Own "Chrismon Tree"
For those of you who don't do crafts, you can still make ornaments like the ones made for that first tree. Or you could help you younger children make some.
Start with a white Styrofoam meat tray that comes from the grocery store. My grocer's meat trays are no longer white, but black. If that's the case, whatever the color, neatly wrap the tray in white paper. Be sure to wrap as tightly as possible so it will lay flat.
Another, super-simple project involves the same technique, only the shape may be a simple triangle, which speaks of the trinity, or a circle, which stands for Jesus being the same yesterday, today, and forever.
- Cut off the edges but leave as large a flat area as possible.
- On a piece of paper the same size, divide the width by three and the height by four.
- Cut off the two outer top corners.
- Skip a row and cut off the two bottom squares on both sides, which leaves a cross; this will be your pattern.
- Cut the meat tray by the pattern you have made.
- Decorate with sequins or glitter. Children love this part.
- Be sure to use white glue, or school glue as some kinds of paint and glue melt Styrofoam.
- After you get the decorations in place, punch a small hole for hanging.
- Cover with a coating of glue to seal the ornament, one side at a time. This helps the decorations stay put and makes the piece less fragile.
If you wonder why the preferred colors are white, gold and silver…
If you choose to include red and green…
- White symbolizes purity, light and righteousness.
- Silver is the redemption of man's sins.
- Gold stands for the glory of God , which is why the ark of the covenant was coated with gold.
For years, the rules on white, gold and silver were quite strict. Red is added to the crosses to signify the suffering of Christ. As we have learned from Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," we cannot discount the suffering or the blood of Christ.
- Crimson stands for blood atonement and sacrifice .
- Light green symbolizes new birth
- Dark green stands for maturity.
Green can be used in the symbol of the burning bush from Exodus. Some would not include this as a symbol of Christ. If not Christ, then God himself was there in that burning bush. Perhaps green can be a symbol of growth.
Other unexpected symbols are ships, anchors, hearts, and tablets of the Ten Commandments. Flame, either alone, or with a cross, is a symbol adopted by the Methodist church. Other Chrismon Tree adornments I’ve seen are bells, doves, angels, and shells (usually associated with Baptism).
Stars come in various kinds – the Bethlehem star has four main points with the lowest one elongated, which could almost be mistaken for a cross. The Star of David has six points, which is a reminder that Jesus was the Son of David. There are also stars with five or eight points that are used at various times.
Have fun with these reminders of Christ. Perhaps you can bring this tradition to your church or to your own family. As you make the ornaments, be blessed with the beauty of what the decorations mean and consider using them in other way.
One of mom's old pattern books from the 70's suggested putting the decorations in a mobile. I have never made a mobile with Chrismons, but I think the idea of keeping reminders of Christ before me year round deserves consideration.
Visit these sites for illustrations and ideas for your own Chrismon Tree:
Illustrations courtesy of Paul G. Donelson – firstname.lastname@example.org www.umcs.org.
Annette C. Agnello lives in Windsor VA with her husband Mario. She has been writing for 30 years and has been a Christian since 1977. She has a special interest in studying the names of God and hopes to write a book on the subject sometimes soon.
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