The Hope of Christ in a Chrismon Tree

The Christmas Season is here again! The days of Advent are upon us. The tucking away of harvest decorations and pumpkins swiftly followed our second slice of Thanksgiving pie and, almost immediately, the tubs of Christmas lights and ornaments were dragged from storage and their contents prepared for hanging. Yet underneath the excitement, for many of us, the Christmas Season is one of deep inner struggle.

As Believers in Christ, we love Christmas! We anticipate the celebrations that focus on the Incarnation event and the unfolding, transforming Gospel story. God’s Redemption of human beings through the life and work of Jesus Christ is priceless news. His birth is the demonstration of God’s ineffable love toward us. We are infinitely awed, humbled, and grateful that Holy God wrapped Himself in human flesh and was born among us.

At the same time, we struggle in early September with the appearance of red and green tinsel stacked across aisles of Halloween costumes, or mailboxes stuffed with catalogs full of Santa and snow globes, plaid flannel shirts, and electronic gadgets – all on drastic sale. By mid-October, unending Christmas ads have punctuated our television viewing. How secular the season has become! Commercialism makes us weary. 

Even more, in this year of 2020, the reality of illness, the loss of loved ones, the insecurity of our jobs, the isolation from family, all have added to the poignancy of this year’s living. 

We remember simpler days and sweeter moments – like the ones from childhood – when unpolished Christmas pageants seemed more meaningful and finding the star more possible. We remember families gathering and warm hugs and special worship services and winged hope. 

One Christmas season in 1957, a lovely young woman sensed this sadness too. Frances Kipps Spencer (1917-1990), daughter of missionary parents, was a member of the Ascension Lutheran Church, located on West Main Street in Danville, Virginia. She shared her concern about the encroaching commercialization of Christmas with her pastor. Even the church decorations seemed to reflect, rather than speak into, culture. In his wisdom, he suggested that she decorate the church for the coming season.

Frances thought about what decorations could be representative both of the heritage of the Christian faith and the true meaning of Christmas. She sought to find the Church’s ancient and enduring symbols and a way to allow them to tell the Story of Redemption. What happened was remarkable.

She chose an evergreen tree, which represents eternal life, which Jesus came to give us. She used tiny lights, symbolizing the Light of the World. She chose the color white to symbolize purity and innocence, and gold to represent the majesty of the Risen Christ.

The ornaments, she decided, would be monograms of Jesus – designs that represent His names, His work, His life, and His saving acts. She particularly loved the symbols used by the Church throughout the generations – the heritage of all Christians. She called these ornaments, Christ Monograms, or Chrismons, and the tree upon which they hung the Chrismon Tree.

She chose a handful of simple guidelines: the ornaments were to be made by hand, not commercially reproduced. They were to be made in love, remembering the Christ they represented. They were not to be sold, but given only in love. 

The first year, she filled the tree with beautiful handmade ornaments displaying the Greek letters for the name of Christ – Cristos. She hung crosses, and the 4th century “Chi-Rho,” perhaps the oldest symbol for the Victorious Christ. The tree quivered, radiant white and gold, declaring who Christ was, is, and is to come.

Across the years, members of the Ascension Lutheran Church brought additional ornaments to this Chrismon Tree each Christmas Season, and the tradition began. Today the tree is filled with hundreds of exquisitely hand-crafted ornaments, each made and given in love.

Dozens of symbols – anchors, pelicans, fish, arks, stars, bread, cups of water and wine, fleur de lis, angels, doves, mangers, lamps, open Bibles, and more – these symbols tell the story of the God who loved us and sent His Son to redeem us. 

This Christmas, many Christians will embrace a new way to celebrate the season of Christ’s birth in their homes. They will place Chrismons on their trees, make and give them away as meaningful gifts to others they love but cannot visit this year, hold a special family service, or share Christ in this special way with those who do not yet know Him as Lord and Savior.

Many churches will erect a Chrismon Tree in the sanctuary and incorporate Chrismons in their Advent services to make more vivid the meaning of each week’s focus. Pastors will connect the themes of December sermons to the symbols, and different age groups will hang their handcrafted and made-in-love gifts on the Tree. Some churches will open their sanctuaries in the evenings for visitors to view their Chrismon Trees and, as guides explain the symbols hung about their branches, hear the story of Redemption.

Celebrating Christmas with a Chrismon Tree offers an alternative to our culture’s secular view of the holiday. Thoughtful, sacrificial, and symbolic, this may be a step toward simplifying and extracting the deepest and sacred truths of Christmas. Making gifts of Chrismon ornaments also helps us as we work to pray, remember, and love our friends and family in tangible ways. May we be wings of hope to each other this year! – Ascension Lutheran Church offers here the brief story and youtube video of their Chrismon Tree.

Published: Dec 23, 2020


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