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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. 

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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.

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