Decorating the Church and Altar for Advent and Christmas - A New Approach
Our church recently formed a "liturgical art" group made up of church members who share an interest in art. We are charged with the task of decorating the sanctuary for the various seasons and holidays in the church year.
Last Christmas our inspiration came from the art of scherenschnitte - a delicate and intricate paper cutting technique originating in Germany. Our church has high walls paneled in dark wood around the altar, so the much enlarged white paper cut-outs would stand out nicely.
This article will describe the process we employed to devise, create, and display this decoration conceived to enhance our congregation’s celebration of Christ’s birth. We decorated our church with an evolving display that started on the first Sunday of Advent and culminated in the final display on Christmas eve.
I. Step One – Initial Ideas
Our group started planning the Christmas display project in early August with meetings in the sanctuary to help the participants to get a feel for the lighting and dimensions of the space. Our discussions included the idea of borrowing aesthetics from the art of scherenschnitte and how to create the cut paper components at the scale needed to make the display visible and meaningful from all parts of the church. We decided on traditional imagery from the Nativity – shepherds, the star, the wise men, angels, and of course, the Holy Family.
Base Drawings for Display
II. Implementing the Ideas
As an artist, I was tasked with creating the images we would ultimately use in our display. I did some research on the internet and created our base sketches. These drawings were scanned and saved as jpeg images. I shared these images with the other members of the liturgical art group and the drawings were refined and revised in response to their feedback. During this process we came up with the idea of making this a progressive display, starting with part of the decoration and building with each successive week. The group came up with a schedule for adding images for the duration of the Advent season. The obvious starting point was the star, and the culmination would be the arrival of the Christ child.
Once the drawings of all the images were finalized, the group met in the church fellowship hall to enlarge the drawings to the scale needed. Measurements were taken in the sanctuary to determine this scale.
One of our members did research into the materials best suited to our project. The concerns centered around how to affix the paper cutouts to the walls in a way that would be firm enough to keep the cutouts from falling down and would not mar the wood finish of the church walls. The paper we chose would have to be light enough to be easily affixed, but heavy enough to make a pleasant display for the congregation. Once these issues were addressed, the materials (banner paper and special two-sided tape) were purchased.
Creating the Cut Outs
To actually produce the cutouts, the images were projected onto the walls that had the large banner paper taped on it. The projected images were checked to make sure they were the correct size. Once this was confirmed, the image was traced onto the banner paper. One of our members suggested we reverse the images so that our pencil marks would be on the back of the cutouts. This was easily accomplished by manipulating the images on the computer.
Once all the images were traced on the banner paper (this took several meetings), the images were carefully cut out. Cutting out the images was a time consuming process and was done at home. These large cutouts were unwieldy and delicate, presenting challenges in transporting them from and to the church.
In our conversations about this display, the group decided to involve the children of the congregation by having them create cut-out paper stars to further embellish the altar walls. These stars were scattered throughout the display and helped unify the various vignettes that comprise the presentation.
The first part of the display was the star which had several “layers” to its overall makeup. For the first Sunday of Advent we decided to put up only the inner star shape. As the weeks progressed we added different parts of the design and each week added another layer of the star. For the second Sunday in Advent we put up the cutouts for the “seeking” wise men as a representation of the prophesy surrounding the birth of the Messiah and the people’s longing for the coming Savior. These wise men cutouts would be replaced by “worshiping” wise men on Epiphany.
The liturgical art group met at church to install the features for the week. The installations required a team of people, as many of the pieces were quite large and needed several pairs of hands to get them properly placed.
Our Advent/Christmas decorations were a great success. The congregation seemed to really enjoy watching the display grow and evolve as it (visually) told the story of Christ’s birth. The entire process of creating and installing the parts of the decoration was very lengthy and a lot of work. I’m sure many people would question the investment of time it required to complete the project (and perhaps question our sanity in taking the project on in the first place!) This is especially true when you consider the transitory nature of paper – it was only designed for use for one Christmas season. Personally, I like the notion of coming up with a new display each year. It forces us to think creatively about the age-old celebration, giving even more depth and meaning with each retelling.
I think I speak for all of the members in our group when I say that the time and effort involved in this project was absolutely worth it. We all viewed the project as a Christmas gift to our church – given in love and with much joy. Ultimately, I (and I think the entire team) saw our efforts as a gift to the Christ child, and that’s truly what it’s all about!