All about those singing Christmas trees!

The other day I openly confessed that, as a kid and throughout my life, I have always been a choir fanatic. What I hinted at in that piece I will now state openly: I was the kind of choir fanatic who was only interested in singing classical music, especially when dealing with sacred issues and texts.

In other words, I wasn’t the kind of singer who welcomed the chance to sing come-to-Jesus pop songs in four-part harmony, accompanied by either (a) a cassette tape purchased at the local Bible book store or (b) the church pianist trying to sound hip, perhaps joined by a teen-aged drummer and someone playing a cheap guitar that was supposed to look like a Fender Stratocaster.

So sue me, because I have never been into suburban megachurch music. I grew up singing the sacred music of Palestrina, Victoria, Anton Bruckner (thanks be to God) and other serious composers.

However, as a preacher’s kid I was exposed to all of the other traditional Southern Baptist forms of choir music, including semi-classical Christmas cantatas, hymns elaborately arranged for choirs that would fit in the Mormon Tabernacle and anthems with soprano descants that would break windows.

But let’s be clear about one thing. I have never, ever been sentenced to take part in a singing Christmas tree.

What, many of you will ask, is a singing Christmas tree?

If you really want to know, the Slate.com team has published a story that will tell you all about this modern phenomenon. The story ran under a sprawling headline that lays out the agenda in language almost, but not quite, as snarky as my overture to this post:

The Rise of the Singing Christmas Tree

Hundreds of people! Thousands of lights! Flying angels! Fireworks! Sequins! The megachurch extravaganzas explained.

Here’s the opening of this pre-Christmas Day piece that defines the necessary terms:

Across the country, churches will soon be groaning at full capacity as millions of Americans, from the deeply devout to the twice-a-year attendees, pack their local congregations to participate in a Christmas Eve service. But this month, some of those churches will also present what has become a tradition in the modern evangelical megachurch: the Singing Christmas Tree. In these productions, church choirs perform a musical celebration while standing inside an enormous Christmas tree platform that reaches to the ceiling, often accompanied by extravagant light shows, dancing church members, and sometimes even fireworks. Displaying all the kitsch and some of the camp of your favorite Broadway musical, Singing Christmas Tree pageants represent the quintessence of the modern megachurch experience: oversized, ostentatious, and a strange blend of the sacred and the secular.

Now here’s the shocker, especially in the context of Slate.com and its often-hostile stance toward evangelical Protestantism. The fact of the matter is that reporter Neil J. Young did his homework and took this subject seriously, even adding layers of cultural background that trace this spectacle back into the first half of the 20th Century.

The key to this entire subject, of course, is the conviction among church leaders — especially Baptists — that if church members invite their friends and neighbors to see the show, there is a chance to hook outsiders with the Gospel.

So while it may appear that these choirs are, well, merely preaching to the choir, the clergy behind the scenes are convinced otherwise. Almost any activity — no matter how tacky or theatrical — can be justified in the name of evangelism.

Thus, Young writes:

How did the productions get so grandiose? The 1970s and ‘80s were exciting times for conservative Protestantism. Millions of Americans got saved and filled the pews of rapidly expanding evangelical congregations. Armed with enviable budgets and crowded with many first-time church members, these congregations rethought some of their traditional offerings and also their strategies for reaching potential converts. …

With the rise of megachurches in the 1980s, Singing Christmas Tree pageants expanded in scale. Ensconced in arena-sized “worship centers,” evangelical megachurches required a Christmas pageant that could play to the last row of the multitiered balcony. The Christmas tree platforms grew larger, in many churches reaching more than four stories in the air with a high soprano perched alone at the tree’s peak just short of the rafters. The trees also became flashier, festooned with thousands of lights that often twinkled and flared in time with the music. And the staid and traditional Nativity play now shared center stage with elaborate costume dramas usually depicting the plight of a wayward soul who had forgotten — or turned from — the true meaning of Christmas.

So what’s the ultimate question?

In the end, Young has to wrestle with Bible Belt claims that thousands upon thousands of souls have been saved through these productions — shows that in some cases have led churches to experiment with other forms of pop culture. Is there a natural bridge between gigantic singing Christmas trees and movie ministries pitching born-again soap operas to the Fox Faith movie demographic?

Read it all. This is a pretty serious news feature about a subject that, well, is easier to joke about than to write about.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Suzanne

    Thank the Lord our church never got into anything like that. As a soprano, I think my fear of heights would have made me unable to utter a sound.

  • Jerry

    A side comment: Are you familiar with “Sunday Baroque”? Because, if not, they had Christmas music you’d like this past week: http://www.sundaybaroque.org/listen/listen.html You can even find a recipe for “figgy pudding” :-) And much, much more: http://sundaybaroque.org/playlists/2011/111225.html

  • Suzanne

    On a more journalistic note, this type of story is one of the things I like about Slate. They’re good at telling “explainer” stories, sometimes but not necessarily always pegged to a news event, to answer the question, “Have you ever wondered…” I wish more mainstream newspapers did them more often.

  • Lesley

    Here in Australia we would exclaim What the!

    I totally agree with the love of traditional choirs, does this marvellous choir need all this show business?
    Is this an attraction for those who do not believe or are they also sniggering behind their hands at another Christian attempt to be “of the world”.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    I churches that theive on ‘emotionalism’, the need to constantly ‘ramp up’ the experience is ever present.

    Where does it end? It doesn’t. Fot the ascendancy of the uninterupted self never ends.

    God’s Word is trying to kill us off to all of that. Instead, these mega-churches are throwing gasoline on the fire (of self).

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    Typing too fast = bhad spellng.

  • http://markbyron.typepad.com/main/ Mark Byron

    The church my sister (Midland, MI’s Christian Celebration Center) goes to did a SCT for about two decades; both my niece and nephew got to be El Nino as a baby. They show got too much to do after a while and they went from a five-show SCT at the local Center for the Arts auditorium to a three-show at-church Christmas concert with the choir in their standard Sunday morning spot on a layered platform.

    The shows do get people in to here a Gospel message that might not darken the door of a normal church service, but the choir and costuming and set efforts might be better spend more directly ministering to folks in the community. The trick is getting folks to do the less-funsy stuff.

  • Dave

    No particular form of pageantry is mandated by Scripture, and every form of pageantry was new at some time. Give it another hundred years before judging this one.

  • Harold

    OMG.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    “Garish” doesn’t even begin to describe this stuff. The fact that Neil Young was able to write about this with a straight face shows that he is a better reporter than I am. I could not do it, not without being snarky or critical in one way or another. So kudos to him.

  • Deann Alford

    The first time I ever saw a ‘singing Christmas tree’ was also the first commercial I can remember. It was for Coke in the late 60s or so and in it everybody’s in three-part global harmonic bliss over a soda pop. Who needs the UN when you can have liquid peace for half a buck a can?

    Lo and beholt, here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zCsFvVg0UY

    And then the NASCAR wheelguys’ revival: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWa1tNbHYEg though clearly less ambitious than Coke’s earliest vision. If you can’t bring peace to the world, maybe it’ll work in motorsports. Reckon Kurt Busch has been drinking too much Dr Pepper.

  • Ryan

    This is a fascinating story story on a fascinating blog, and I really appreciate the work you do, but since this blog focuses on accurate reporting about religion, I would like to point out the problem in this sentence: “…hymns elaborately arranged for choirs that would fit in the Mormon Temple and anthems with soprano descants that would break windows.”

    Rather than the Mormon Temple, you probably mean the Mormon Tabernacle, home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. This is, of course, a nuance, but one important to Mormon readers. The temple is a place of sacred ordinances which do not include choir performances. The Tabernacle is a meetinghouse where such performances regularly take place.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    RYAN:

    Thank you. Fixed.


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