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Chrismon Ornaments: A Tradition Revived with Love

Chrismon Ornaments: A Tradition Revived with Love

Reviving a Tradition 

Christmas is filled with countless traditions. From singing carols to gathering with loved ones, it is for many one of the most beloved times of the year.

At St. Paul United Methodist Church in Fort Smith, the holidays are marked by a unique custom that celebrates both the roots of the Christian faith and the beauty of the Christmas season. Ladies from the church come together each year to erect a Chrismon tree in honor of the start of Advent.

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This special tree is defined by unique ornaments comprised of gold and clear beads and pearls. The detailed ornaments are each handcrafted into the shape of various Christian symbols, known as Chrismons, including a fish, Celtic cross, Jerusalem cross, shepherd’s crook, angel and more.

The tradition originated in 1957 with Francis Spencer of the Ascension Lutheran Church in Danville, Va. She decorated an evergreen tree with unique ornaments, each symbolizing a different element of the Christian faith. From there, the practice spread across the country and among different denominations.

St. Paul United Methodist Church adopted the Chrismon tradition in the late 1960s and continued it into the 1970s. However, the church did not resume the ritual until 2000, when Pat Payne and other members of the congregation decided to dust off the decades-old ornaments and decorate a Chrismon tree.

“We came across the ornaments and realized we should keep the tradition alive,” explained Payne. “They were just so beautiful and we knew we had to hold onto them.”

Despite their many years in storage, several of the Chrismons had held up remarkably well. The decorations included a range of symbols including pearl crosses, a Triquetra and Trefoil (both representing the Holy Trinity), and a five-pointed star, which symbolizes the five wounds Jesus suffered on the cross.

That year, the ladies also set about making new ornaments to hang alongside the old ones. They recruited the help of younger members of the congregation. Members of the Cross Trainers group, fourth- through sixth-grade students, crafted smaller versions of the Chrismon ornaments using the traditional gold, white and clear beads.

“Those kids, who are now at least all in their late 20s or 30s, seemed to really enjoy making these ornaments,” recalled Payne. “It was wonderful to have them participate in such a meaningful tradition that I know they will always remember.”

For the past 15 years, the ladies have faithfully unwrapped each of the ornaments and decorated a large Chrismon tree for the sanctuary to display at the beginning of Advent. This Christmas, the ladies also elected to make more Chrismons.

“We have not had enough ornaments to adequately fill the tree, so a group of us decided this was the year to make new ones,” said Payne.

Crafting new ornaments was truly a labor of love for the ladies, who began their work in February. The group started with three volunteers and expanded to include as many as 13 members.

Each month, the ladies gathered with their assortment of beads and wire and fashioned individual ornaments, using detailed patterns. Because of the intricacy of the Chrismons, some ornaments took five or more hours to complete.

“The wire that you use to string the ornaments sometimes gets kinked, making it difficult to thread or forcing you to start the process over,” explained Karen Malone. “Some of us would even take ornaments home so we could give them our full attention and make sure they turned out just right.” 

The group eventually changed from monthly to weekly meetings in order to produce enough ornaments to fill out the tree. By fall, they had completed 80 new Chrismons to add to the church’s collection, which were unveiled at their annual Holiday Tea in mid-November.

Members of the Chrismon crafting group admit to making more than just ornaments over the course of those nine months – they made incredible memories.

“So much of the fun in doing this was the fellowship with one another,” said Malone. “Some ladies were better than others at making the ornaments, and we all learned that was OK ... we just enjoyed the process and all getting together. This is a great tradition in more ways than one.”

Payne and her fellow volunteers are very proud of their finished ornaments and of the special custom they have revived at their church. The Chrismon tree was placed on the altar in St. Paul’s sanctuary on Nov. 23, officially marking the first Sunday of Advent.

To help other members of the congregation better understand the meaning behind each ornament, the ladies also incorporate details about each symbol during the holiday services.

“This is such a meaningful tradition to us and we want others to know just how special the Chrismons are,” noted Payne. “These ornaments aren’t just beautiful, they represent so many aspects of our faith. We are fortunate to get to share them with others.”

– By Brittany Ransom

This article appears in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.

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