Decorating the Church and Altar for Advent and Christmas
For the past several years, I have served on the "Liturgical Art Team" at my church. Our group is tasked with devising and producing the decorations for the major holidays in the church year. Each year around August, our team begins to brainstorm ideas for Christmas decorations that will add meaning and depth to the worship space from a visual point of view. It's important that anyone taking on a task like this gets an early start. The creation of displays like the one I will describe in this article can take months to complete.
This year, as I was thinking about the decorations for Advent and Christmas, the verse from John 3:16 came to my mind. This verse encompasses much of what I think about when we celebrate Christmas. I created a design revolving around the first four words of the text, using symbolism from the Old and New Testaments that reflects the incredible love of God.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.— John 3:16
The next step in the process for this project was to show the design to my fellow team members to find out if the design I'd created was acceptable to the team. This was accomplished quickly by sending a brief email to the team members along with a picture of the design as shown above.
How Will We Implement the Design?
Once the design was accepted, we quickly began to consider how the design would be implemented. Our church has very high ceilings with walls behind the altar covered in dark wood, which makes a perfect backdrop for large, graphic banners and wall hangings. This is both a blessing and a curse, because while the space is conducive to large decorative features, the size of the area to be decorated can also be a "budget buster."
I knew from the beginning that I wanted the banners to be done in vibrant colors, not necessarily the traditional Christmas red and green. As I considered the design, I made a color study of the banners in the colors I envisioned.
Our team met in the sanctuary with the designs in hand. We decided we wanted to make the banners as large as the space would reasonably allow, which in our case is 4 feet wide by 8 feet long for the larger outer banners, and 3 feet wide by 6 feet long on the smaller inner ones. We already knew that the cost of doing these banners in fabric would be prohibitive, so we came up with the idea of doing a multi-media paper collage technique using cardboard as the foundation of the designs.
Planning the Materials
To create the banners we would cut the various colored areas from large rolls of colored paper available at art supply/hobby stores and glue them onto the cardboard base. One of our fellow church members works for a cardboard fabrication company who graciously donated all of the cardboard used in our project and even cut the pieces to size.
In order to create the banners at the size we wanted, we had to enlarge the basic design from the size of a piece of office paper to the generous proportions described above. To accomplish this we projected my drawings onto a wall, carefully measuring to assure the shapes projected would fit onto the large cardboard base. I drew final "spec" drawings for each of the banners to be used for this enlargement process. The drawings were then projected to the correct size, and team members traced the shapes directly onto the colored paper.
The colored paper was then cut on the outline in preparation for the placement onto the cardboard. Understanding that there could be a certain amount of "play" in the pieces as they were traced, we allowed a slight margin all around the pieces. Any extra paper could then be trimmed once the pieces were placed.
With the colored paper cut, it was time to begin placing the pieces onto the cardboard. We did some research as to the best way to affix the paper to the base, and we learned that Mod Podge was the glue of choice for most collage artists. This product is available in art supply and craft stores.
The team placed the colored-paper shapes from the top down, overlapping the pieces to make sharp transitions from one color to the next. This process took hours to complete and is a testament to the dedication and commitment of our team. Once we were done with the gluing of the major components of each banner, we were ready to move on to the next phase of the fabrication process.
This is the part of the project we all liked the most. At this point, we were ready to add the special parts of the banners that really made the work sing. We accomplished this embellishment in several ways:
- The cross details were made from card stock and wrapping paper and were scattered throughout the banners.
- The fish were created from poster board and acrylic paint, with one "bedazzled" fish sporting sequins and glitter.
- Other parts of the paper collage were painted with acrylic paint to give them greater depth and range of color.
As you can imagine, creating a set of banners (or any large work of art) requires some creative problem solving along the way. One such problem was what to do about the edges of the banners. The banners that hang on the far left and right of the altar are only a few feet from churchgoers as they kneel to receive Communion, so they have a close-up view of the banners. The edges of the banners reveal the cardboard backing.
We wanted a more finished appearance to these edges. One of our team members had the idea of using black electrical tape to cover and finish the edges—an example of one of the creative solutions we devised as we completed our work.
Once all of the embellishment of the banners was completed, it was time to hang the banners. Thanks to our anchoring system already in place, this was a relatively easy process. One of our faithful helpers put grommets through both sides of the top of each banner and then put wire through the grommets and anchored these wires to the top of the framework mounted on the ceiling. There was some work involved in assuring that the banners were all at the proper level and hung parallel to the ceiling.
We chose to put all four banners up for the first Sunday in Advent. We could have easily put up one banner each Sunday. I liked putting all four banners up at once. It seemed to give more impact, as you can see below.