December is here, and once again crowds of area residents will pack First Baptist Church of Corsicana’s vestibule awaiting the opening of the sanctuary doors and an experience that has become a Christmas tradition.
Excited anticipation and music greet folks as they take their seats. A beautiful “tree” dominates the expansive sanctuary with its musicians, lights and star topper. “My joy comes from the music and seeing the faces of the people as they come in and see the tree,” Becky Thurston, a choir member and church secretary, said.
The Living Christmas Tree has been performed annually since 1985 and continuously for the past seven years following an interruption due to the sanctuary roof collapse in 1999. “The tree was brought back in 2005. We’ve tried different things throughout the years, but we always come back to the tree,” Chuck McElroy, minister of music, stated. “I try to make it an enjoyable journey for the many people who are involved and not let us get lost in the minutiae.”
Selection of the music to be performed is a continuous process with final decisions made by Chuck while summer temperatures are high. “I keep a file year-round. When I hear something I think would work well, it goes into the file. I like to mix up styles — from carol arrangements to Beethoven’s “Hallelujah” to contemporary.
The challenge is to pick out challenging and inspiring music that is not too difficult. It has to hit to the heart of the gospel.” Some favorite selections are repeated, but over half of the selections are new to the performers. “Chuck does a great job of picking out our music. All the selections do a great job of telling the message of Jesus,” Becky said.
Choral rehearsals are held following Labor Day during the Celebration Choir’s regular rehearsals from 7:00-8:00 p.m. on Wednesdays. The choir numbers swell to 80-plus tree performers during the fall season. Performers range from 16 to nearly 80 years of age and bring a variety of skill levels to the task.
The choir also commits to a few Sunday or Monday rehearsals as the time gets nearer to make up for losing the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. “We come together to form a team — it’s cool!” Chuck said. “This is something that everyone anticipates.” Chuck produces a rehearsal CD for each choir member. “I sing their voice part on the CD,” Chuck revealed. He also invites each section, in turn, for a rehearsal cook-out at his house.
Many other volunteers are needed to bring the production to the community each year. Chuck estimates the number, including parents who provide transportation, at about 250-275 folks. “There are a lot more people than those you see during performances,” Becky said. Church members Bill and Cathy Carter bring dinner to the busy choir members during a critical extra rehearsal. There’s costuming and tree construction to be done.
The “box crew” works to get performers’ boxes in the right place each night. Performers stand on boxes uniquely measured for them so that everyone appears at a uniform 6-foot height. The “fire and faint” crew takes care of anyone who has a fainting spell or becomes sick during the one-hour performance, and of course, takes care of the lights on the tree. The “flashlight loaders” load the tree with performers — a task that takes patience since the lines are close. “There are bars behind us, but really if we get sick or faint, there’s nowhere to go but straight down since we’re so close together,” Becky revealed.
“We’ve had people that needed help during performances, and the guys were really good at getting them down unknown to anyone in the congregation,” Chuck said. “It can get really uncomfortable in that one hour, but it’s worth it all when the congregation’s response is so great.” A 20-piece orchestra comprised of Baylor University instrumentalists accompanies the choir. “We have strings, brass, drums and woodwinds,” Chuck said. “I feed and pay these students.
The first-timers are like children at Christmas when they first see the tree in dress rehearsal. They remark on how inspirational the experience is.” “It’s really a neat experience when we appear and all the first-timers, whether in the orchestra or congregation, gasp audibly,” Becky said. Ushers help people to their seats after Boy Scouts have helped folks across the street from the parking lot. Lighting for the performance is designed by Chuck to enhance the music. “Our lighting system is old, but we’re able to pull it off every year,” he said. “Everything works cohesively.
As director, I tell the choir that I’m the window to the congregation,” Chuck explained. “As such, I don’t see the congregation, but I can feel the moments that I live for as a Christian and musician. These moments come when we least expect it. They’re random and thrilling when we connect with people.”
Becky’s favorite moments come during “Little Drummer Boy” when the drummers start walking down the aisle and when the “snowflakes” start falling near the finale. “The flakes falling in the light are beautiful. Since we perform our music mostly from memory, we can enjoy the performance,” she said. The performance’s purpose remains the same. “We want to snag people’s hearts, make them think about the message and promote peace,” Chuck said. “Christmas is a sentimental and reflective time.
This is how we can slow down during the middle of all the busyness of the season, take a respite and make sense of everything. That’s the power of music.” The Living Christmas Tree will be presented December 13-15 with seating to begin at 6:30 p.m. followed by the performance at 7:00 p.m. Admission is free. “Every year, people say, ‘This year’s performance was the best,’” Becky said. An Oklahoma native, Chuck came to Texas to attend Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
He is father to two grown children and has a granddaughter. Becky and her husband, Robert, are both Corsicana natives. “My grandchildren are fifth-generation First Baptist members,” she said proudly. “When we consider that since 1985, hundreds have performed the music and thousands have witnessed the performance, it’s humbling,” Chuck recalled. “The tree is sentimental to generations of families, and it’s both a sacrifice and a joy to be part of the team that makes each performance possible. Music can take the message of Jesus to places in the heart where the message alone can seldom go.”
Written by Virginia Riddle.