Across the country, churches will soon be groaning at full capacity as millions of Americans, from the deeply devout to the twice-a-year attendees, pack their local congregations to participate in a Christmas Eve service. But this month, some of those churches will also present what has become a tradition in the modern evangelical megachurch: the Singing Christmas Tree. In these productions, church choirs perform a musical celebration while standing inside an enormous Christmas tree platform that reaches to the ceiling, often accompanied by extravagant light shows, dancing church members, and sometimes even fireworks. Displaying all the kitsch and some of the camp of your favorite Broadway musical, Singing Christmas Tree pageants represent the quintessence of the modern megachurch experience: oversized, ostentatious, and a strange blend of the sacred and the secular. Here’s one glitzy production:
Like many of the showier elements of the modern megachurch, the Singing Christmas Tree had humble origins. The first Singing Christmas Tree likely took place in 1933 when a music professor at Belhaven College, a Christian liberal arts college in Jackson, Miss., teamed up with an engineer to craft a small wooden tree frame for the school’s all-female choir to stand in as it performed a series of Christmas carols. The concert took place outside so that members of the community could enjoy the event, and outdoor Singing Christmas Trees began to pop up on college campuses and in city parks in other cities throughout the South during the 1940s and ‘50s.
Churches, most often Baptist congregations, got in on the act in the 1960s and ‘70s, setting up Christmas tree platforms inside their congregations and inviting community members to their productions. Most of these productions were simple affairs—the church choir was arranged on a tiered structure draped in garland boughs and red ribbons. There it would sing through a medley of Christmas hymns. The pastor would read the account of Jesus’ birth from the Gospel of Luke while a handful of church members re-enacted the nativity scene. Nativity plays have always figured prominently in American churches’ holiday celebrations. But the Singing Christmas Tree pageants that became popular in evangelical circles in the late 20th century inadvertently brought the season’s secular trappings directly into churches’ Christmas observances in a way that dramatic recreations of the first Christmas in Bethlehem had previously avoided.
How did the productions get so grandiose? The 1970s and ‘80s were exciting times for conservative Protestantism. Millions of Americans got saved and filled the pews of rapidly expanding evangelical congregations. Armed with enviable budgets and crowded with many first-time church members, these congregations rethought some of their traditional offerings and also their strategies for reaching potential converts. One recruiting tactic: showy musical productions for Christmas, Easter, and even the Fourth of July. These became regular events at many evangelical churches: mishmash extravaganzas that wrapped the gospel in some of the features of the secular entertainment culture.