About two thousand years ago, some simple shepherds were watching over their sheep on the Judean hillside in far-off Palestine. It was night, and it was very still.
Suddenly the darkness was filled with a strange light. The stillness was broken by the sound of angels singing: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and good will to all." So began the event that inspired one of our most beautiful and meaningful religious festivals: Christmas.
Christmas, like a great cathedral, has been developing through many centuries. It is still changing and continuing to grow as old customs are refined and new traditions begun.
Christmas is celebrated in home and church. Some of our celebrations have their origin in pagan customs, and have little to do with the biblical account of the birth of Christ. Converts to Christianity brought these celebrations to Christmas. But we have no qualms about using these customs – for the customs, along with the people, were converted to Christianity. These ancient celebrations are being laid at Jesus’ feet, as gifts for the Christ child. They enrich and gladden the hearts of believers as they bring their best before the newborn king in solemn dedication.
Today our church will begin to wear its Christmas apparel. We will change the appearance of the church in order to make ready for the birthday of our King. The preparation for this beautiful occasion is not something that we hire out to be done for us, to be performed by others. Instead, it is something we do ourselves, each individual and family sharing in the furnishing of this house for the celebration of Christmas, the birth of the Christ.
In this spirit, we invite each of you to share in this occasion with gladness of heart at the anticipation that you, too, are making it possible for the Christ to enter in. As we decorate the church and wreathe it with song, we will explain the history of the symbols, and dedicate them and ourselves to the glory of God, and his son, Jesus Christ.
Explanation of the Star
We place the star in a central place in our worship setting. The star is central in our thoughts as we recall that it was under the light of the stars that the first announcement of the birth of the Christ was made to the Judean shepherds.
It was the light of a star that guided the strange visitors from the East to the Christ child. The gospel of Matthew tells us: ". . . And lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy."
In some lands, including Spain, Italy, and Russia, the people wait until the first star appears in the sky on Christmas Eve before beginning their celebrations. It is fitting that the star of Bethlehem be the first of our Christmas decorations, and that it occupy a special spot in our church.
The star will be put in place as we sing the hymn #182, “Brightest and Best of the Stars.”
Explanation of the Poinsettia Plant
Next we place our poinsettia plant(s). The bright poinsettia has become the most popular Christmas flower. Many churches are decorated with it during the Christmas season. The poinsettia is a tropical plant. Contrary to general belief, the red leaves are not the blossoms. Rather, the small yellow flowers in the center of the clusters are the blossoms.
Dr. Joel R. Poinsett first discovered the poinsettia in Mexico in 1828. The Mexicans have a legend that when blood fell on the earth from the broken heart of a young girl, a poinsettia grew from each drop. The star-shaped formation of red leaves is a reminder to us of the star that shone over Bethlehem's stable. We will now decorate our church with poinsettia plants.
Explanation of the Greens
The greens that we use for Christmas decorations found their way into early festivities because of certain virtues attributed to them by ancient peoples. Many of them that adorned pagan seasonal rites were later to grace the ceremonies and celebrations of Christmas Day. This custom has its roots in the profound reverence of the ancient peoples for all natural phenomena. One thing is certain: They were never sought merely for their decorative capabilities as is apt to be the case now. We should think of garlands, ropes, and wreaths in a sacramental way, as carrying with them a blessing into the home and the church.
The laurel and the bay symbolize victory and triumph. The yew and the cypress symbolize eternal life. Mistletoe is regarded as a symbol of peace. And Christians came to see, in the prickly leaves and the bright red berries of the holly, symbols of the crown of thorns and the sacrifice that the Christ child would make on Good Friday on Calvary.
God is everywhere in nature – in sky and water, mountain and valley, grove and meadow. Let us honor and praise our God as we hang the greens and sing “Deck the Hall,” which is on an insert in your bulletin.
Explanation of the Christmas Tree
Traditions concerning the Christmas tree are centuries old. An old German legend tells about Saint Winfred, a missionary to the Scandinavians in the eighth century. The people, led by their Druid priests, had gathered in the forest under a great oak to offer a human sacrifice. Saint Winfred, shocked by such brutality, and with surprising courage, hewed down the oak. As it fell, a young fir tree appeared, as if miraculously, in its place. Saint Winfred proclaimed the fir tree holy, saying it was a symbol of endless life because its leaves are evergreen.
First Reader: Bryan George
These, we are told, were Winfred's words: "Take up the fir tree and carry it to the chieftain's hall. You shall go no more into the shadows of the forest to keep your feasts with secret rites of shame. You shall keep them at home with laughter and songs and rites of love, gathered around the fir tree, to rejoice in the birth night of Christ."
Second Reader: Lyla O’Connnor
The use of the pine, fir, and cedar is generally to be believed of German origin and ascribed to Martin Luther. Remembering Luther's tender interest in children and the Nativity, the inspiration may well have proceeded from him. The great reformer, it is said, wandered out one Christmas Eve and became entranced with the wonder and beauty of the starry sky. Looking up, he thought of Jesus, "who, for our salvation, came down from heaven." On his return home, he set up a tree for his children and decorated it with candles to represent the gracious heavens that had sent forth the little Lord Jesus.
Third Reader: Lucy O’Connor
But how did the Christmas tree find its way into the church? On Christmas Eve in 1851, a young minister, Pastor Henry Schwan, newly arrived from Germany, created an uproar in the Zion Church of Cleveland, Ohio, by bringing a lighted Christmas tree into the sanctuary. His act was declared sacrilegious, "a plain case of idolatry," and "groveling before shrubs." The pastor was given to understand that the town's decent citizens would not tolerate pagan practices.
Fourth Reader: Tula Johnson
Pastor Schwan set out to prove that the decorated tree was not a pagan practice or an innovation, but a thoroughly Christian custom. After long and weary research, he proved to his congregation that it was a custom known even in America. It was this young pastor who first gave the Christmas tree its traditional place beside the altar in many an American church.
We read in the words of the prophet, Isaiah, "The glory of Lebanon shall come unto thee – the fir tree, the pine tree and the elder tree together, to beautify the place of my sanctuary." Let each of us, as we look upon the Christmas tree, turn to the God who touches earth with beauty, and pray, “O God, like the straightness of the pine tree, let me upright be." Let us decorate the Christmas tree as we sing “O Christmas Tree,” which is on an insert in your bulletin.
Explanation of Giving
The tree stands in our midst as a reminder of the completely pure and entirely unselfish love of God. It was this love that prompted God to give us Jesus. Even as the snow falls on everyone and everything, making no distinctions among any, so the tree is a reminder of the grace of God and of God's unlimited love.
The tree reminds us that giving for others, not just getting for ourselves, is the greatest lesson that Christmas teaches us. The custom of giving to the members of one’s family is accepted as a matter of course. But the tree speaks of something more than this. It proclaims the truth that Jesus taught, "if you salute your brothers and sisters only, what more do you than others? Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect."
Let us now give our tithes, gifts, and offerings to God.
Doxology & Prayer of Dedication
O God: we bring here our treasures and gifts. Some of them are gold, some of them are frankincense, and some of them are myrrh. For some of it has come from plenty, some from joy, and some from the deepest sorrow of the soul. But you, O God, know that we bring them with love, as our pledge of peace, our promise of good will. Accept our treasures and gifts, and all the life we bring. Amen.
Explanation of Light
Light is a Christian symbol so old that it has the sanction of Jesus himself, who probably told his disciples not just once but many times, "You are the light of the world." Thus, every time a Christian lights a candle, he or she is in effect declaring their Christian faith and belief.
The first-century church did not commonly use candles, for the long days of the Mediterranean region stretched to embrace part of the night. It was when persecution drove the worshippers to the catacombs that they found it necessary to use lamps and candles. After Christians were allowed to worship openly, the custom of using candles in worship became well established.
Explanation of the Candles
At Christmas, the use of candles reflects our mood of quiet reflection and flaming joy. The worship services at Christmas are frequently held in a candle-lit church. The mystery of the softly gleaming light reminds the worshiper of that strangely illuminated sky with its great star that guided the Magi that first Christmas.
We light our candles as a symbol of that Christian faith and joy that have continued for over 2,000 years. May it be a sign that our Christmas this year will be a happy and blessed one in heart and home, church and community.
Now let us light the candles and the Christmas tree to signify that we pray for the coming of Christ into our hearts this Christmastide as never before, and to testify to all people of the True Light which it is the privilege of the church to bear. (Light candles on the altar – instead of at the beginning of the service.)
Lighting of the Advent Candles
Today we begin the Advent journey to Bethlehem. For Joseph and Mary, it was an arduous journey from Galilee to Judea, from Nazareth to their ancestral home in Bethlehem. But just as God is with us in the journeys of our lives, God was with them – giving them hope, preparing the way, even as the prophet had predicted.
A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken." (Isaiah 40: 3-5)
We light this candle to proclaim that Christ is the Light of the World; to announce that by bringing light into the world, Christ has brought hope, reminding us that good will ultimately triumphs over evil, and that by living in the Light of Christ, we, too, can bring hope to the world. (Designated person/family lights the first Advent candle.)
Let us pray. O God, who gave us the Light, thank you for giving us hope in the form of a child at Bethlehem. As we prepare to celebrate the birth of this holy child, may we be willing to be your servants, lighting the candle of hope in the darkness of despair. Amen.
Let us sing hymn #158, “Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light”
Pastor’s Prayer of Dedication
Let us pray: O Jesus, Prince of Peace, we now dedicate these symbols. O God, we now dedicate our lives anew to the service of Christ, and pray that our lives may be filled with your love, so perfectly revealed through his birth, life, and ministry. Amen.
WORSHIP CHOIR SINGS
I am the Spirit of Joy! Here at the Christmastide,
Where our hearts are united, I come to abide.
Let your candles be lighted, Your holly be hung,
Your hearth fire be merry, Your carols be sung!
In this of all houses, The Christ child will bide;
Make room for his coming; Throw the door wide!
Hang greens for his welcome; Trim gaily your tree;
Put wreaths in your windows; Follow me! Follow me!
The end of the Hanging of the Greens portion of the worship service.
*This service was handed down to the Rev. Amy Johnson while she was Pastor at the United Church of Stonington, Stonington, CT. It is believed to have been written by the Rev. Steven Burt.