Almost Three-decade Tradition is Sunday, November 28
"Christmas is coming!" Anyone who knows Covenant Director of Music Ministry Michael Shuman knows this is the motto he uses throughout the year. This time of year, we all join the chorus!
A first indicator that the season is upon us is Covenant's annual Hanging of the Green service, which is Sunday, November 28, at 9:30 a.m. Congregants know this service is a beautiful tradition to start the Advent season, but every year many wonder: When did the service start? How does it get done? And what does it mean?
Covenant's former music director, Tom Brown, started the service his first year at Covenant, 1993. At the time, Tom said he was pushing some boundaries. "It was innovative at Covenant, but it quickly became a cherished tradition."
Indeed, this year marks the 29th time Covenant will hold the service, where we anticipate Christ's coming by decorating the church with symbols of life, joy and hope.
Michael Shuman now leads the preparation for this service. "It's a big project," he said. "It takes a large behind-the-scenes crew to put the tree together, make sure the lights work and find the ornaments. The number of people who help varies from year to year because the work has to happen the week of Thanksgiving, but we typically have a group of 10 to 20 people. This year, we'll start to flip the Sanctuary right after the worship service on November 21. People will work on it during the beginning of the week and on Saturday. We decorate the Sanctuary and around campus as well."
Covenant members Susan Lisheron and Margo McCormack are key to making this service happen. "Susan and Margo are very organized and have streamlined the process," Michael said. "They have notes from their experience and from those who organized it before them. They are a huge help. Once they start working on it, I don't have to worry."
Susan said she has purchased and placed the decorations in and around the church for four years. She gets the tree and boughs, removes the "regular banners" in the Sanctuary, and readies the room where participants gather, leaving water and treats, and little crafts to pass the time. After the service, she -- with help -- fully decorates the tree. “I was always interested in the church having more greenery - just tasteful wreaths and boughs, so I offered to take that on, and was introduced to three wonderful ladies on the Hanging of the Green committee: Page Harris, Jean Zapone, and Margo McCormick.”
Margo's role is getting people to participate in the procession. Margo, who's been volunteering in this capacity for three years, said that it's not hard, it just takes time and lots of emails.
"The Hanging of the Green service helps set the Advent and Christmas seasons apart from what we've been doing throughout the year," Michael said.
Long-time member Mary Jim McDonald agreed. "It really helps you get the feel of Christmas," she said.
Michael explained what it all means. "There's a lot of symbolism, and whether or not you know the details, there's something special about having the worship spaces feel different. It indicates that something has started or is about to start.
"The greenery -- the wreath on the door, the garlands and valence on the walls -- is traditionally evergreen, symbolizing eternal life and what Christ is bringing, or is about to bring, into our lives," Michael said.
There are other symbols as well. The candles on the Advent wreath, which we light weekly, symbolize hope, love, joy and peace. Michael explained that the decorations on the tree are a more recent addition. Frances Kipps Spencer from a Lutheran church in Virginia created the "Chrismons" in 1957. The word, Chrismon, is a combination of Christ and monogram (or meaning). "She was looking for ways to teach about Christ through symbols and to remind us that Christmas is the celebration of Jesus' birthday," Michael said.
There are many Chrismons, and Michael said no church uses all of them. At Covenant, we picked a few and we repeat them. The Chrismons Covenant uses include:
After all the behind-the-scenes work is complete, Covenant is ready for the service. "This year, all of the various elements that have happened in the past will be back," Michael said. "This service has special music and a special pageantry. A processional sequence takes place as we start the service. Some greenery will already be up and visible as we process in with banners, and with families and members walking in to put various ornaments on the tree.
"We need many people to help in the procession – the people walking in and hanging the ornaments, and the family that lights the first candle. Our Hanging of the Green team technically includes the Sanctuary Choir and Journey Youth Choir," Michael said. "Even though they would be at the service anyway, we put in some extra work."
"This service is really the first chance we get to start singing music of the season," Michael said. "The Journey Choir will sing again this year. There's a tradition that a child sings "In the Bleak Midwinter." We're keeping those things and seeing some new faces in the process."
Beth Feger has participated in the procession with her family. "I like seeing the little kids come up and hang the ornaments," she said. "I like the idea of how Advent fits into the church calendar, and how we prepare for Christmas."
“The best things about the service are its message and the multi-generational participation,” Susan Lisheron said. “I love the work because I feel it matters; I am very affected by my surroundings and respond to bringing nature inside -- whether it is stars, boughs, trees or flowers. It is also a great way to see how many people are needed to make any service ‘work’ and to meet wonderful members and staff! I must admit, seeing how much the children enjoy being at church and participating in Hanging of the Green service is really the biggest reward of all for me.”
Michael recalled last year's Hanging of the Green service. "It was so weird because Jonathan (Kofahl, our video contractor) filmed all the elements separately. We invited families to bring in the ornaments, but we spaced them out. I played O Come O Come Emmanuel about 50 times to give them something to listen to while they hung them."
Michael added that Journey did a virtual choir rendition of O Come O Come Emmanuel. "It worked out well. I appreciated all the work Jonathon put into it. The service really said 'We're continuing this tradition, we're just doing it differently.' It was similar enough, but it will be nice to have everybody back in the room."
Michael missed Christmas last year, so this year, he's added an extra Wednesday night concert and more groups. "It's usually just GraceNotes and the Handbell Choir. This year, we'll have the GraceNotes, Journey and Children's choirs on December 8 and the Pro Musica Handbells Choir and the Sanctuary Choir on December 15. Both those concerts will start at 7 p.m. in the Sanctuary.
"Since we missed singing Christmas carols together last year, I think it will be nice to have different arrangements of Christmas carols for both of those evenings. It makes for a lot of work, but to me, it's worth it."
But before we enjoy those Wednesday evenings, we'll kick off the season festively. The Sanctuary, and the entire campus, will be dressed up, indicating that there is something special in the air. Hanging of the Green is Sunday, November 28, at 9:30 a.m.
You can learn more about our plans for the Advent season at Covenant.org/advent.