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.
With the rise of megachurches in the 1980s, Singing Christmas Tree pageants expanded in scale. Ensconced in arena-sized “worship centers,” evangelical megachurches required a Christmas pageant that could play to the last row of the multitiered balcony. The Christmas tree platforms grew larger, in many churches reaching more than four stories in the air with a high soprano perched alone at the tree’s peak just short of the rafters. The trees also became flashier, festooned with thousands of lights that often twinkled and flared in time with the music. And the staid and traditional Nativity play now shared center stage with elaborate costume dramas usually depicting the plight of a wayward soul who had forgotten—or turned from—the true meaning of Christmas.
While the forest of Singing Christmas Trees remains thickest in the South, chances are, no matter where you are reading this, there’s a production nearby. Congregations in cities as diverse as Tacoma, Wash.; Sacramento, Calif.; Grand Isle, Neb.; and Agawam, Mass. all host Singing Christmas Tree pageants.* But the grandest and most famous productions remain in the South, holiday rhinestones on the nation’s Bible belt.
Perhaps none is more famous than the Singing Christmas Tree at Memphis’ Bellevue Baptist Church, one of the nation’s largest congregations. Bellevue debuted its Christmas pageant in 1976, and it has set the standard for megachurch Singing Christmas Tree productions ever since. This year’s show, “Destination: Christmas,” takes place in a crowded 1950s-era train station. (Singing Christmas Tree productions frequently set their stories in earlier time periods like the 1890s and 1950s—decades that evangelicals often romanticize as simpler and purer moments in American history.) In the bustle of the train depot where travelers rush to their Christmas destinations, three strangers’ lives intersect, changing their destinies forever. Wallace, an older gentleman, wallows in his loneliness and sadness; Paige, an attractive lounge singer, longs for the bright world in front of her, just a train ride away; and Helen, the ticket clerk, laments lost dreams and a faded youth. But all three stand ready to learn the real meaning of Christmas: that Jesus came as a baby 2,000 years ago to offer the world salvation.
All of this drama, performed by a 400-plus-person cast, choir, and orchestra, plays out in front of Bellevue’s famed 44-foot-tall Singing Christmas Tree bedazzled with 100,000 lights. But if that sounds ostentatious, the Singing Christmas Tree at First Baptist Orlando, a megachurch in the shadow of Disney World, outshines its Memphis rival. Boasting not one, but two Singing Christmas Trees, the twin pines in Orlando reach to 40 feet high and twinkle with more than 250,000 lights.
Despite all the worldly glitz and gaudiness, presenting the gospel remains the real purpose of these productions. Church members are encouraged to invite their neighbors to the shows, and in many cities across America the local Singing Christmas Tree draws attentive media coverage. Thousands turn out for these events. Bellevue’s annual attendance regularly hits 35,000, and across the state in Knoxville the Sevier Heights Baptist Church’s Singing Christmas Tree has grown so large, with annual attendance surpassing 60,000 people, that it has moved its production to Thompson-Boling Arena, the basketball stadium for the University of Tennessee.
Every year, thousands of Americans pray to receive Christ as their personal savior during Singing Christmas Tree productions. In 2007, for example, 600 of the attendees at Sevier Heights’ show reported that they’d secured their salvation during the service. Joyce Rogers, the wife of Bellevue’s legendary former pastor Adrian Rogers, claimed in her 2005 biography of her husband that since 1976 the church’s Singing Christmas Tree and its Easter pageant, the Memphis Passion Play, had resulted in some 95,000 conversions. Those numbers mean that the flamboyant Singing Christmas Tree productions will continue in churches across the country for years to come. These churches recognize that glitzy Christmas spectacles draw in crowds more enormous than any candlelight Christmas Eve service could. Thousands of Singing Christmas Tree attendees come for a hometown experience of a Radio City Christmas Spectacular-style show, and many leave each year as new believers. Sometimes it takes a little of the gaudy to spread the gospel.
Correction, Dec. 27, 2012: This article originally referred to a Singing Christmas Tree pageant in Grand Isle, Neb. It is in Grand Island, Neb. (Return to the corrected sentence.)