Preparing the Church Sanctuary for Christmas

Dozens of candles, elegant tree decorations, cheery poinsettias—beautiful sanctuary decorations for Christmas highlight the thrill and wonder of Jesus being born in the flesh! Here are some tips from The Altar Guild Manual for decorating your church sanctuary in ways that focus the glory on God and what He has done for us in Christ.

How should candles be used?

Because of the association of light and joy with Christmas, one of the most appropriate and effective decorations of the church building is the candle. If the congregation has candelabra that were removed for Advent, the celebration of Christmas would be the appropriate time to bring them back into use. Other candles, such as candles on the window sills or in candle stands that line the center aisle of the nave, would also be fitting. The multiplication of candles (so many that the electric lights in the church are not needed) provides a very effective setting for the Midnight service on Christmas Eve.

Where should flowers and greenery be placed?

Flowers and greenery also help to beautify the church building and aid in expressing the joy of the season. The flower most commonly used for Christmas decoration is the poinsettia. Greenery such as fir boughs or holly branches may be used to decorate windows, columns, and other architectural pieces (but not the altar, pulpit, or font).

What type of Christmas trees and ornaments are best?

Evergreen trees may adorn the chancel or nave undecorated. If ornaments are desired, the best kind are chrismons, white wood or Styrofoam decorations in the shapes of Christian symbols, particularly those symbols associated with Christmas. If the glass, ball-type decorations are used, it is best to use only one or two colors, such as all red, red and green, all gold, red and gold, or all white. Many different colors should not be used, because it gives a gaudy appearance not appropriate for the house of God; nor, obviously, should secular or commercial figures be used. If trees are placed in the chancel, they may flank the altar, sitting in either the sanctuary or the choir, depending on how the chancel is constructed. The tree or trees may also be located at the head of the nave. In either location, their size and decoration should not distract from the altar as the focal point of the worship space. Finally, it has become the practice in many congregations to use electric lights. It is better liturgical practice not to use such lights, but if they are used they should be the small white, nonblinking kind.

Who should be included in the nativity scene?

Another appropriate Christmas decoration is the Christmas nativity scene or crèche. At a minimum, the scene would include Joseph, the Virgin Mary, the Infant, and perhaps a few animals. Shepherds and sheep may be placed around the grouping for Christmas, the Wise Men and their entourage replacing them for Epiphany. The placement of this scene will depend on the size and arrangement of the chancel. If there is room, it may be placed in the nave just below the chancel. Actually, anywhere is appropriate, as long as it is not in front of the altar. Also, the figures should be ceramic, stone, or wood; plastic figures are cheap and unbefitting.

What else should the altar guild keep in mind?

The shortness of the Christmas season (twelve days) and the many arrangements that may have to be made mean that the altar guild will have a lot of work during this season. Careful planning and preparation will have to be done ahead of time. More altar guild members than usual may be involved in the guild’s work. Provisions may have to be made for obtaining greenery or picking up floral orders. The placement of decorations and extra candles may be assigned. Although they are assigned extra duties and probably rushed for time, the members of the altar guild should not let these burdens distract them from the joy and festivity of the season.

Adapted from The Altar Guild Manual, pages 77–78 © 1996, 2008 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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