Recently we heard from Maureen who completed this beautiful altar linen using one of the patterns here on our website. Congratulations! It took her over 500 HOURS of work. Elizabeth Morgan, author of Sewing Church Linens, helped with the making up of the fair linen. This is magnificent- thanks for sharing your photos, Maureen. Christmas was a perfect time to present this wonderful gift at the altar.
Pew ends, wreaths on front doors and of course the altar are the usual and first places which come to mind when we set about making the sanctuary beautiful for Christmas. And Christmas must carry on long after the 24th and look fresh and green. On the to-do list of every altar guild is the upkeep and watering of the potted plants, the misting of fresh greens, and the constant refreshing of drooping floral decorations over the next 10 days.
Sometimes, when decorating, it is good to enter the front door of your church as if you were a visitor and not a long-term parishioner who knows every nook and cranny- or bring someone new into your church to get a fresh perspective. Where does the eye rest when you first come in? Is there a spot for a pedestal, a wreath, an arrangement? The photo below is just inside a busy side entry at St. John’s, Newport. It is a beautiful cobalt blue stained glass window with a very wide ledge in front. Walmart’s had this 14″ Holy Family statue set for $12.99. It makes a wonderful grouping for the Feast of the Holy Family, and a pleasant place to contemplate when one first enters the vestibule. Various greens, twigs, wild moss, rosemary sprigs,and potted small trees with a snowdrift of German statice for snow make up the very simple arrangement which is long-lasting and easy to do.
Don’t forget the rector’s pulpit! Fresh green garland around the top, or a green wreath on the front of the pulpit will make an appealing focal point which will be noticed during the sermon. This particular wineglass pulpit at St. John’s has a little staircase with a newelpost finial of St. Augustine. The arrangement uses the wonderful eucalyptus with the large silvery frosty berries and aromatic greens arranged in a copper cone container along with beaded eucalyptus, white alstromeria and laurel leaves. This arrangement lasted two weeks! Every little niche and quiet corner may be the place for a few unexpected and sweet-smelling flowers or greens for Christmastide. When large arrangements start to fade, salvage still-fresh blooms and greens to make up smaller arrangements for new places. The possibilities are endless and pleasing-as well as economical.
If you have a small shrine in a side aisle or chapel, don’t forget to add a few fresh greens and flowers over the niche or at the base of the statue when doing festival flowers. This is a polychromed woodcarving by Davis D”Ambly of Philadelphia of a young St. John. St. John is portrayed in the familiar coral and green vesture, with his symbol of the snake and chalice. The diapered stenciled door panels in red and blue is a treatment often seen in English churches.
The pedestal to the left of the niche has a bit of a surprise for Christmas- anthuriums! Usually thought of for tropical and exotic floral arrangements- anthuriums are actually a good value as they last a long time if properly tended-and the true red works well with poinsettia and traditional Christmas decoration.
While searching out last year’s boxed cards, I found a few photos from 2000 at St. John the Evangelist in Newport. I will post some of these over the next few days leading up to Christmas Eve. This one is probably a good one for this weekend as I imagine all over America the Altar Guild has been busy polishing brass and silver! How I wish I had a digital camera back in those days!
This was our first “”white Christmas”- no red poinsettias. The altar frontal was our oldest dating to about the building of the church in 1893. This was the year of taking out all of our old brass, polishing it like the top of the Chrysler Building(which took weeks of hard work) – and putting up the huge altar cross which had been given from historic Trinity church when St. John’s was a mission on The Point. The altar decoration was copied identically from one of the oldest photos in the church archive. I forget exactly how many candles went up- over 40- but Father said the heat was terrific and he needed oven mitts and an asbestos chasuble!
What did our brass squad use? MAAS metal cleaner-much better than Brasso or Never Dull. And for silver?- Wright’s silver cream!
Outside were white bag luminaries up and down the street and up the front steps of Washington St. White velvet ribbons, white poinsettias and white roses on the altar- truly a Night of Light to remember always.
Martha Stewart’s Crystal Glitter
I was excited to find Martha Stewart’s excellent fine glitter at Walmart’s yesterday. This is the old-fashioned lovely stuff which has a glint like sun on new-fallen snow. Although I run from a “Vegas” Christmas decor for churches in general, a touch of crystal or silvery glitter on natural branches, applied with a light hand, can add a whole new dimension.
A cardboard box lid makes a handy tray for overall ”glittering” of foliage and twigs. Spray adhesive (comes in a can like hairspray) is just the thing, applied lightly. Sprinkle glitter immediately over wet adhesive, wait a few moments, then tap off excess and catch it for reuse in the cardboard lid. For spot glittering, tacky glue, or other liquid adhesives and clear glues are effective. A few glittered twigs or sprigs of greens and foliage in pew ends catch the glow of candlelight in a darkened church on Christmas Eve night. The aim is not to overdo the gilding and glittering! A little will go a long way, and will look like the diamond glint of snow.
One year my decorating scheme was Glad Tidings By the Sea as our parish was right on Narragansett Bay. We used strands of white lights which were encased by scallop shells (still available at the Christmas Tree Shop), pearl roping, and many beautiful sand dollars and seashells just kissed with silver and crystal glitter, small aqua and silver balls, and feather sea gulls- lovely!
Natural silvery birch branches simply arranged in a garden urn (which may be faux-finished to look like wrought iron or stone) add a wintery touch without the glitter. No birch branches handy? Any type of branch can receive a light aerosol spray painting of white or silver-nature’s own sculpture can’t be beat! The aim is to achieve as natural a look as possible when gilding or applying glitter. Red, green, blue, rainbow and other colored glitters will produce an artificial effect you will want to avoid like the flu! Another product is Sno-flock which produces a white snowy coating on branches and greens. This product has been around for many years, and with a controlled finger on the nozzle, can be used to get a wonderful snowy effect. Glitter- it’s a GOOD thing.
Looking for something besides the usual red poinsettia for Christmas decorating? With Rose Sunday coming fast, are you ready for Greening Sunday at your church? The flower appeal letter has gone out, notices are appearing in church bulletins, and all over America altar guild flower
arrangers are sending in their orders to florists and nurseries this week. Busy times ahead indeed. One “green” which is often overlooked is the versatile eucalyptus.
There are many varieties of eucalyptus, native to Australia-both in tree and shrub form. Florists in America generally use the familiar tall, spiky variety or another type that is called in the trade, “seeded or beaded” eucalyptus shown on the wreath above. “Beaded Euc” has glorious silvery-sage green oval leaves and plump clusters of dense green-yellow beads. Both will dry beautifully, and make a gorgeous wreath all by themselves. I like to pick in clusters of beaded euc into my festive Christmas greenery for contrast. The little wooden green picks are perfect for this, but not essential. It smells heavenly, can take some dry indoor abuse and still look great, and has a lovely natural look. Usually I favor all-natural materials, but I do love this wreath in the photo above, which is finished off with several sizes of silvery mercury-silver balls. The balls complement the silvery color of the eucalyptus. Silver, gold and white are always appropriate for Christmas decoration for churches- in fact, I prefer them to red and green-which are more secular colors.
There is another variety of eucalyptus, a little harder to find, called silver dollar, which droops gracefully, features large, rounded leaves and wonderful big blue-green seed pods. Eucalyptus also is fabulous used in pew ends, lasts a long time and is great for all those with stuffy headcolds. Many is the parishioner I have beheld bending over to take a good whiff of the eucalyptus!
Creamy ivory or sage velvet ribbon looks great if you need to add a bow or a swag festoon or rosette, and a touch of metallic silver is – divine!
This Sunday marks a very important feast in the church year, as well as closing the church Year B. We take down the green hangings which have been up so long in the Season After Pentecost. Now is a good time to get those cleaned and steamed. Next Sunday we will find ourselves in Advent I, the birthday of the church. Christ the King, sometimes called Feast of the Reign of Christ in some parishes, is a feast for extra care in preparation of the altar and decorations. The best white set of vestments and hangings are brought out, touches of gold or silver are appropriate, the brass should gleam, and white flowers are particularly lovely. Next Sunday will mark a great change as the altar once again becomes subdued, flowers are put aside until Christmas Eve. In some parishes boxwood or plain evergreens might be seen sparingly. The Advent wreath becomes a focal point. Some parishes will use a “Christ Candle” of white in the center of the Advent wreath of three purple and one rose candle. This white candle will be lit on Christmas Eve at midnight services.
Some churches in our diocese have a cross bearing the Christus Rex in their sanctuaries. Christ Church in Westerly has a large one in the side chapel. Some church supply catalogues sell the figure alone or on a cross in several sizes and ready to be mounted on the wall.
The time for preparation begins for Altar Guilds all over the world: ordering candles and bobeches, writing and mailing the annual Flower Memorials letter, checking on supplies of wine and bread, placing orders at local nurseries and flower shops, polishing brass and silver, pressing the best linens, ordering incense, polishing the thurible, tidying sacristies for the busy days to come, and the many other little services performed by faithful hands year in and year out as the great Feast of the Nativity approaches. The sweet-smelling quiet of the sacristy is a wonderful place to be at this time of year.
Thanks to Susan Bergstrand who has sent in some photos of Christmas decorations this year from Church of the Epiphany. White Christmas was the inspiration. The Paschal candle was decorated with white roses and million star baby’s breath and the green wreaths were trimmed in rich creamy velvet. Poinsettias?- all white! The credence table was especially lovely with some unexpected blossoms of tulips. Pew ends and a swag of greens on the pulpit are very festive touches. The winterberry and hyperion berries are also an inspired touch on the tree and window decorations. What a welcoming vision to see that glowing tree shining in the night for passersby and neighbors. Thanks for sharing, Susan- just lovely.
“We went with the white Christmas theme. Everyone loved it. We also had a huge Christmas tree for the first time that was visible through the glass doors as you entered the church and through a large window facing the street. The tree was decorated with natural material-mostly silver dollar plant and winter berries and pearl beads. The white LED lights gave a bluish glow. It was topped with a silver star. I had the tree on a timer and a church neighbor called and asked if we could keep the tree lit later into the night because she enjoyed seeing it!”
Tonight will be a busy time for altar guild workers everywhere-and when at last the team on duty settles into their pew, there is always a little sigh of satisfaction that everything is in place and awaiting Christmas to arrive again. I will be thinking of everyone in all the sacristies spread around our little state around midnight. Please don’t forget to take some photos of your decorations this year so we can share them here. Tonight I will be at Christ Church in Westerly at 10 p.m.. Wishing you all a blessed Christmas with family and friends!
It’s always great to get mail from altar guild members all over the country, offering suggestions and asking for opinions on various topics. Names and email addresses are always kept private. Here is a recent note from the inbox.
“I am on the flower guild at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Georgia. I will be selecting the “theme” of Christmas decorations for the church next year. Not being a “cradle Episcopalian” I am confused about what can and cannot be around the altar. I know that I can’t use plastic fruit (and I wouldn’t do it even if I could) but other than that I can’t figure it out. Can I use glass icicles? I’m thinking of doing the two trees on either side of the altar in gold and silver next year. We use white lights and I am wondering if I can use gold and silver ribbon…glass icicles…glass “snowflakes”. I’m just totally confused and any info you have would be appreciated. “
Well, I have never seen any rubric or writings of the church outlining every thing which is and is not permissible for Christmas decorating. If there is such a document- please send it to me! Both altar guilds and the notion of special decorations for the altar at Christmastide are relatively young institutions within the church. In days of old, strewing herbs in the aisles and festooning with some fresh garlands of green was the extent of festival ornamentation. We have the Victorians to thank for some of the excess zeal for Christmas church decorating! The most successful of church flower designers in Europe and America tend to agree that a sacred space should not look like the store windows in Herald Square or a setting for Santa.
Why do we use flowers on altars? Yes, they are memorials, a bit of God’s own natural creation given in memory or in honor- or even in thanksgiving for some blessing. We are returning the beauty of God’s gifts and the work of our hearts and hands to God. All that has come from the Creator is worthy to adorn an altar. Thus, plastic fruit, tinsel, frilly bows, gaudy tinfoil, artificial doodads and glamorous blinking electric lights, fake trees, silk and vinyl flowers, and reproductions of living things can hardly fall into the catagory of coming from the Almighty’s hand. I realize there may be many who will disagree with me out there, and please do write in with your thoughts. There are even some purists who do not sanction dried flowers, grasses, or plant materials because they are dead things, although I have seen some magnificent dried arrangements- especially for Lent which are very inspiring and suitable. Personally, I am for all vegetation being used in arrangements, from humble clover to orange-red rose hips to twigs and branches! If it appears in Genesis somewhere- it’s good enough for me.
My own teachers in church flower design are quick to point out- worship service at the altar is not the same thing as a flower show. Although it is entirely acceptable to have a flower show in a church setting- and the English are masters of this sort of thing. Summer is the usual timing for such an enterprise- which can be a great fundriaser along with a garden tea.
I am very much a supporter of a “themed” effort for Christmas decorating and have done many, from “Glad Tidings By the Sea” at my seaside church (featuring shells, starfish, sea lavender and other marine items) to Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming (which featured beautiful pink roses and poinsettia in shades of pink and a large tree with small paper roses on which parishioners could write prayer petitions). I have tried White Christmas, Renaissance Christmas, Old Fashioned Dickens Victorian Christmas, Della Robbia fresh fruit Christmas, Angelic Christmas with angels everywhere, Christmas Past in the Parish (with framed photos of bygone rectors with candles in the windows), and Flowers of the Holy Land Christmas. Preparation for a themed Christmas needs to begin early and the parish should be aware of it in plenty of time to get onboard. Most of my themed items were donated by parishioners for our annual large tree which stood out in the bell tower entrance. I have used fresh fir trees as a pair on either side of the entry into the choir and decorated those with mounds of dried statice tartarica or German Statice which looks like freshly fallen snow.
In the note above, I like the idea of a gold and a silver theme- these are truly the correct colors, along with white, for Christmas. If ribbon is to be used, it should be of a very high quality, with a high cloth content, and wired. This is sometimes called French wired, and has a beautiful metallic, cloth of gold, gauzy look. Glass, technically is a silicon product- sand- and a natural substance which can be quite elegant and tasteful. I think such a tree decorated with glass icicles and crystal snowflakes may be quite lovely. Any display at any time of the year, however should not impede the procession to the altar, nor overpower the sacred space of the chancel and altar. We all tend to go a bit “over the top” at Christmas- and it is indeed the one season, along with Easter when we tend to want to show our joy with a little more unbridled lavishness than normal. Thanks for your comments.
You may recognize the work of New Mexico author and paper silhouette artist Dan Paulos. His fluid interpretations of religious figures are featured in books, cards, and prints all over the world. At this time of year, his Madonna and Child and Holy Family works are especially poignant and beautiful. To read more about Mr. Paulos and to see and order some of his work, visit Trinity gifts at http://www.trinitystores.com/?browse=&alpha=M
To learn more about the fascinating and inspiring life of Dan Paulos, click on this link “His is a paper mission for Faith” http://www.nmia.com/~paulos/albjournal.html
Nothing says “Welcome” on a cold, dark night like luminarias. Using simple brown or white paper bags with a tealight or votive inside to line the sidewalk and stairs to the church is an inexpensive and elegant way to light the way to Christmas Eve services. If the night is dry, kitty litter, sand or gravel should be used to fill the bags 2-3 inches. This will weigh the bag down and provide a safe support for the votive candle.
Bags may be rolled down a bit at the top, or perforated with a paper punch to make a pattern design of small holes through which the light might shine. The custom of luminarias seems to originate in Mexico and the Southwestern United States. White luminarias shining in a velvet black night -a beautiful way to welcome Christmas!