The Chrismon Tree

By Fran Snead

With December rapidly approaching, many of us are preparing for the busy holiday season.  This includes practicing for a Cantata, preparing food, buying gifts, and, of course, decorating. In the winter issue of “Homestead: An Anthology of Historical Facts and Folklore of Western Henry County,” published in 1976 by the Folklife Club of J.D. Bassett High School, there is a wonderful story about how the Chrismon Tree at Pocahontas Bassett Baptist Church came to be. Here is the story.

The church lights fade out and the lights of the Chrismon Tree come on. The only sounds are the sighs that ripple over the congregation. “You have just the tree to look at. It’s just such a glow inside…you can’t explain it … a feeling of maybe … Moses’ face glowing.”  This is how Pauline Wells described the climax of the Chrismon Tree Service at Pocahontas Bassett Baptist Church.

The concept of the Chrismon Tree originated in 1957 through the efforts of Mrs. Frances Kipps Spencer of Danville, Virginia. Feeling that traditional Christmas tree ornaments were too gaudy and inappropriate for a church service, Mrs. Spencer devised the Chrismon Tree as part of Christmas worship in her church, the Lutheran Church of Ascension. She owns the copyright for the Chrismon instructions  because she feels that if they were offered for sale, it would cheapen the meaning and intent of the Chrismon Tree. This year, the Chrismon instructions have been sent out to every state in the United States and to some sixteen foreign countries.

Mrs. Wells first learned of the Chrismon Tree from her daughter, Martha Jane, who saw the service in Liberty, N. C. Further inquiry revealed the instructions for making the Chrismons could be obtained from Mrs. Spencer in Danville, and thus the first Chrismon service in Henry County was presented in 1967 by the Rev. William H. Hales of Pocahontas Bassett Baptist Church.

Women of the church began working on the program in March of that year. Mrs. Wells recalls the first symbol that was made was the ‘Crown of thorns.’

“Martha Jane (Wells Clark, daughter of Mrs. Wells) brought me some branches, eighteen inches long.  I made a board, hammered nails on it in a circle and entwined the branches among the nails. It had to be weathered so I put it on top of the garage, where it remained until December.” Mrs. Wells related that a little humor surrounded the making of that first symbol – men who came to work at her house on the air conditioner were afraid at first to go on the roof when they saw the board with thorns woven around it until they were assured it was harmless. Could they have thought that perhaps it was a hex sign?

The Chrismon itself is a monogram of Christ: the Chrismon ornaments are symbols for Christ, symbols passed down through the ages, emphasizing the miracle of that first Christmas. The green tree means life. The color gold signifies the Father; pearl, the Son; and crystal, clear or illusion represents the Holy Spirit.

The Christian Year, represented by the two circles, one above the other, adorns the heart of the tree.  The upper circle tells about God; the triangle in the center symbolizes the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The lower loop, read counterclockwise, depicts the life through which God was revealed to all mankind for all time. Each symbol depicts a certain period in Christ’s life.

Various crosses, such as the St. Andrew’s, the Cross in Glory, and the Cross Treflee, remind us of our Lord’s redeeming sacrifice. Letters seen on the tree are Greek, the earliest monograms of the first Christian churches. These are the most familiar monograms of the first Christian churches. The most familiar monograms are HIS, A, and INRI. The stars symbolize the close relationship between the birth and death of Christ. Also of special interest are the “parable balls” that depict the teachings of Christ.

Lights on the tree represent the life of every member of the church.

Mrs. Wells revealed “there are enough lights for every member, generally more lights than needed because sometimes several of the lights will burn out when the tree is turned on. But there’s even a sermon in that. Someone may wonder, ‘Is that my light that went out?’ That light is Christian life.  If it went out, he had better do something about it.”

The Chrismon worship service is followed at Easter with a cross made from the trunk of the Chrismon Tree. On Palm Sunday, the bare cross, with its Crown of Thorns at its top and rocks at its base, sits in the sanctuary. Then on Easter Sunday everything comes alive. Greenery, such as flowers, and the Holy Crown (taken also from the previous Chrismon Tree) are added to the cross to climax the end of the Chrismon ceremony.

The beauty of the service is the interpretation each individual puts into it. It means something different to each member of the congregation. Mrs. Wells also explained that each year a new symbol is added and this year one of the three fish will be included. The fish itself is a significant symbol because it goes back to the catacombs and was a means of identification for Christians in hiding.

“My favorite ornament from the Chrismon Tree,” related Mrs. Wells, “is the symbol used on the Liturgical Year, the only symbol that has any color to it … the pelican who pierced her breast and fed her little ones with her blood.

“It would be wonderful to work on the Chrismon and study the symbols at the same time for a whole year, and highlight that study with the Chrismon Service.”

Mrs. Wells, who had just finished teaching a Chrismon Class at the Lynwood Art Center, worked in two 10-hour sessions with various members from area churches who plan to go back and teach the instructions to leaders in their churches.

The Chrismon can even be cut smaller and used for a family tree. From the very first Chrismon Service at Pocahontas, the Chrismon worship was not just a Pocahontas endeavor or the work of any one individual, but was a program worked up by many members of the church to be presented for the entire community. Over the years many people have enjoyed the experience of working with the Chrismon Tree, especially women in the church like Naomi Thacker (Manning). Mrs. Wells commented “The service is everybody’s – it belongs to the Lord.

“Each year, there is that same impression when the tree is turned on … that sucking in of air, the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, the moments of personal reflection  – which light is mine? What does the tree mean to me?  Who made the symbols? How much work went into the decoration of that tree? It is the most touching, most fascinating experience. It has such deep meaning … when I think about it, I cry.”

People did not realize and/or did not know of the preparations taken for finding just the right tree that would be the Chrismon Tree at Pocahontas. Lloyd Wells was always in charge of finding that “perfect” tree with his right-hand man, Otis Griffin, always alongside. During the year, someone would tell Mr. Wells that he could check out a tree in a certain area or check with someone who probably would have a tree that would and could serve as the Chrismon Tree for that specific year. The entourage to find that certain tree included other men from the church, young men from the youth group at church, and other persons who were interested in participating. Years later, when Mr. Wells passed away, and with Mr. Griffin still serving in his same capacity, Paul Ross helped Mr. Griffin continue the tradition with locating and preparing the tree that Mr. Wells had started years before. It was several years later that a new tradition began in the church in using an artificial tree because of the tree possibly being a fire hazard.  Paul Ross and Creed Maxey chose an artificial tree to resemble the beautiful living trees that had been used in the past. This tradition remains today.

No matter how old you were, seeing a twenty something foot tall tree light up with thousands of lights was simply astounding! After rereading this article, it is amazing at how much time, effort, and preparation went in to finding just the perfect tree.

Sanctuary of Pocahontas Bassett Baptist Church with Chrismon Tree, taken in 1984.

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