In Bel Air, you can barely see the choir for the tree

December 06, 1992|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,Staff Writer

A singer stands at the peak of the 38-foot Christmas tree that fills the sanctuary of Oak Grove Baptist Church.

An 11-foot star shines above her. The tree spreads out beneath her with ever-widening branches lined with more than 100 of her fellow choir members proclaiming the message of the holiday in joyful song.

It's called the Living Christmas Tree, a yuletide tradition in Harford County for the past eight years. Over the next two weeks, 10,000 ticket-holders from Maryland and Pennsylvania will crowd the pews of the Bel Air church to enjoy one of 11 musical performances.

From the audience's perspective, the tree appears to be a live evergreen brightened with 28,000 colored lights and adorned with 1,000 glittering balls, 650 music notes, 65 bells, 38 angels, 14 trumpets, 11 hunter horns and two harps.

But a close look behind the tree reveals a cone-shaped structure made of steel columns and wooden platforms that the choir climbs into on two steep wooden staircases. The greens and other decorations are attached to decorative panels in the front that conceal the framework.

"The Living Christmas Tree is one of the greatest outreach tools we've ever had," said the Rev. Ken Tipton, the church's minister of music.

Hundreds of church members volunteer throughout the year to bring the tree to life. The choir begins rehearsing in July, and volunteers wash and iron their shimmering green capes and silver-and-red stoles.

Free tickets are mailed to the thousands of people who send requests to the church in October. When the tickets run out, the church sends apologies. A free-will offering is taken during each performance, and, in past years, enough money has been raised to cover $9,000 to $10,000 in operating costs, he said. Surplus funds are used to help needy citizens.

A crew of 16 to 18 workers spends a day in early November transporting the 1,000 pieces of the tree out of storage and into the church and then putting them all together.

On a performance night, at least 200 people are on hand to sing, usher, handle lighting, provide child care for workers, prepare food or work the parking lot. Nurses are stationed behind the tree to handle health emergencies, and repair crews are on duty to fix errant lighting.

Betty Stewart decides how the tree will be decorated, designs the lighting, heads the lighting crew and organizes a team of decorators for the tree and the church itself.

Living Christmas trees are popular at evangelistic Baptist churches throughout the South, said Mr. Tipton, who came to Oak Grove Baptist Church in 1984.

"I decided that this would be a great place for a tree," he said, and the church's 1,800 members agreed.

The church provided $10,000 for the project -- and donations made up for that in the first year.

Robert Wilson, a member of the church and an engineer at Aberdeen Proving Ground, designed the tree. From October 1984 until the following May, Mr. Wilson experimented with designs and construction materials to develop what he calls "basically a huge erector set."

Satisfied with the design, Mr. Wilson and four other volunteers began to build. They met Tuesday and Thursday evenings and all day onSaturdays beginning in June. By late October, a 38-foot Christmas tree sat in Mr. Wilson's driveway.

L "My neighbors have quite a sense of humor," Mr. Wilson said.

The tree has built-in sound and lighting systems. A control panel in the balcony allows continual lighting changes throughout the performance to complement the music. And behind the tree are 18 fans to cool the singers, especially those at the top, where it can get hot.

The first presentation of the Living Christmas Tree is tonight. No more tickets are available for this year's performances.

The church will take requests for next year's shows in October, when order forms will appear in area newspapers.

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