NEWS FEATURE: Bringing a `Singing Christmas Tree’ to Life

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

COLUMBIA, S.C. _ Christmas begins early at this capital city’s Shandon Baptist Church, arriving as most Americans are still pondering how to turn Thanksgiving turkey into delectable leftovers.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, a miniature army of volunteers descends on the suburban church. First, they unload the tractor-trailer stored most of the year at the rear of the church’s 22-acre campus.

Then, working in assembly-line fashion from outdoors to indoors, volunteers pass yards of greenery, miles of electrical cable and hundreds of feet of garland from one person to the next. Inside, others sew costumes, saw and hammer to build an extension to the church’s stage, and painstakingly inventory the pasteboard platforms upon which choir members will soon stand.

For Shandon Baptist, this beehive of activity is only the first stage of an annual labor of love called “The Singing Christmas Tree.”

The “tree” is a 35-foot-tall, 13-tier metal structure built in the shape of a tree that will hold up to 150 singers who become “human ornaments.”

The production, presented in 11 performances over five days in early December, uses more than 20 miles of audio and lighting cable, 3,300 lights, 75 enormous reflective ornaments, 500 feet of garland, 66 velvet bows and a dump truck full of greenery.

Pete Richards, who works with a local construction firm, has called Shandon Baptist home since childhood. He has been part of the tree project, now in its 16th year, since the beginning. He and his family give many hours of volunteer time to the project.

“It’s one of the major outreaches of our church,” Richards said. “I feel like in some small way, I’m hopefully leading some people to Christ. Not to mention it’s a great way to kick off the Christmas season.”

This year, three generations of the Richards family are part of the tree. Richards and his son, Peter, are singers. Grandson Alex is part of the staged drama and Richards’ wife, Brenda, plays the central role of a grandmother in the dramatic story told by the production.

Employing a computerized lighting system, “The Singing Christmas Tree” is beautiful to look at and a mind-boggling blend of creativity, volunteer labor and techno-wizardry. A fiber-optic star provides the background for the eye-catching presentation, a popular event in Columbia attracting an estimated 13,000 people annually.

“We can change the colors of the stars,” said the Rev. Dave Dupree, minister of music. “We can have white stars, green stars, red stars, purple stars. That’s all run by computers.”

Weeks in advance, Dupree sets up the organization of the singers on a huge pink, blue, orange and green chart, noting each choir member’s physical height, musical part and the size of the pasteboard standing platform each will require during the production.

He begins working on a script with volunteer copywriters in early March. The theme changes annually but always is linked to the deeper meaning of the holiday season. Last year’s theme was “the perfect tree,” drawing on the idea that every family yearns for that perfectly shaped fir tree to adorn with lights, ornaments and tinsel.

“The story line this year is (based on) someone who needs a heart transplant,” Dupree said. “Here in Columbia in the last six or nine months, we’ve seen lots of stories of people who need heart transplants. In every story of that type, people say, `It was a miracle what medical science can do, the fact that I can receive someone else’s heart and live.”’

In a spiritual sense, we all need new hearts, Dupree said. “The story here is this person who needs a heart transplant, and that all of us need a new heart, a new heart in Christ.

“Just like someone has to die before a person can get a physical heart transplant, Jesus died on the cross so that we could get a spiritual heart transplant. So the miracle of Christmas is a new heart. You could call it the `Heart of Christmas.’ We call it the `Miracle of Christmas.”’

When the production first began, performances were held at the church’s former sanctuary, drawing about 4,000 people annually. The crowds were so large, Shandon moved the event to a local auditorium until its new, larger church facility was complete. Its current sanctuary seats about 1,250.

Dupree takes each singer’s needs into account as he plans the human component of the tree.

“Some people are afraid of heights so they’ll be on the lower rows,” Dupree said. “Some are claustrophobic so we put them on the outer edges. I also try to account for their absence if they’ll be out during a particular performance.”

Dupree initiated “The Singing Christmas Tree” when he came to Shandon in 1985. He had seen singing Christmas trees in other locales, including Denton, Texas, and Columbus, Ga. Many churches treat the event as Shandon does, as a holiday celebration for their congregations and an outreach to their communities.

According to Dupree, singing Christmas trees were produced in 1933 at Belhaven College in Jackson, Miss., and at a high school in Denver in 1941. Shandon decided to mount its own production because of the potential to reach so many people.

“Unlike a staged pageant or play, it’s a real vertical medium,” Dupree said. “It draws you up. Creatively, it takes in more of your senses.”

Head seamstress Kathleen Dendy, responsible for making more than 50 children’s costumes for this year’s production, say she loves the work because it “touches the lives of more people than you can imagine.”

Brenda Richards, part of the drama and a volunteer in other areas, is overwhelmed by all the people who give of their time to make the tree literally come alive. Volunteers range from medical personnel working backstage during performances to the folks who hang in until 2 a.m., taking the tree down, when the final performance is complete.

“I get a lump in my throat every year because of the joy of the family of Christ pulling together to share something like this,” she said.

(Cecile S. Holmes, longtime religion writer, teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina. Her e-mail address is: cecile.holmes(at)usc.jour.sc.edu)

DEA END HOLMES

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