A service or activity of “hanging the greens” has become increasingly popular among Protestants in the US during the past 20-30 years.
The United Methodist Book of Worship provides a service for this activity. Discipleship Ministries also provides one that more directly incorporates children.
Frequently around this time of the year I receive questions about this ritual, and the most common among those I receive from new pastors or from congregations that hadn’t yet taken it on is, “When should we do it?”
The best answer to that question is, “It depends.”
And what it depends on is why you are doing it in the first place.
Are you doing it to get ready for Christmas?
Or are you doing it to enhance your congregation’s celebration of Advent?
Getting Ready for Christmas
As I look at the descriptions of how many churches actually practice the Hanging of the Greens, it appears to me they tend to think of it as a way to get ready for Christmas.
Indeed, that’s how this practice started in Europe and continues in many churches with European heritage to this day. Evergreens were brought into the sanctuary at some point after services on Advent 4 to prepare the worship space for the services of Christmas Season, beginning with Christmas Eve. Evergreens in the sanctuary were a symbol of the eternal coming to dwell among us as Word made flesh. They were also a sign of life and growth overcoming and flourishing in the midst of the dead of winter, and so of the resurrection of Christ. Over time, additional and more specific attributes were given to specific evergreens that might be included, as we hear in the carol, The Holly and the Ivy.
Why bring in the greens so late, after Advent was over?
Ritually, it’s because they were intended to support the celebration of Christmas Season, not Advent. Advent was not about incarnation or the birth of Jesus, but the second coming of Christ. It was kept with a degree of austere solemnity as a season of penitence and baptismal preparation, parallel to Lent in late winter and into spring. So during Advent, as during Lent, the decoration of the sanctuary was intentionally more sparse than lavish.
And practically, it’s because when these practices started in the late middle ages, artificial greenery did not exist. If you wanted greens to stay green throughout Christmas Season, you needed to cut and place them at a time much closer to Christmas Eve. Either that, or you’d have to keep taking down the dried and browning greens and replacing them with fresh ones.
To Enhance the Celebration of Advent
If you look carefully at the language of the rituals for the Hanging of the Greens in the Book of Worship and on our website, you’ll notice they are designed to enhance the celebration of Advent more than simply “get ready for Christmas.” The “coming of the King” for which we “prepare this house” in the opening of the Book of Worship ritual points to the second coming of Christ. The version on the Discipleship Ministries website is even more explicitly focused on the Advent setting of the “greening.” The hymns and songs suggested in both are primarily for Advent, not Christmas.
We do have artificial greenery available now, so if it is desired to use these greens throughout Advent to point to Advent themes, as the Discipleship Ministries version consistently does, there is neither ritual nor practical reason for this not to be done, perhaps as a special service during the week between Christ the King and Advent 1.
Then, after or at the conclusion of services on Advent 4, perhaps an additional service incorporating more of the Christmas themes (including parts of the Book of Worship ritual) might be offered to correspond with the addition of live greens that will be used throughout the Christmas season.
The Key: Be Clear about Why You Are (and Aren’t!) Adding the Greenery
So, why do you hang the greens?
Is it primarily to celebrate Christmas Season and the Incarnation, as the rite of Hanging the Greens started out and in its originating traditions continues?
Or is it primarily to call greater attention to the Advent theme of anticipating the second coming and consummation of all things in Christ?
It’s important for you to be clear about why you do this, so the meaning of these symbols is clear in your worshiping community.
If you don’t make it clear, the result is likely to be confusion. Such symbols do not speak for themselves. They need and invite interpretation. If you don’t provide your interpretations, others you may not intend will be supplied.
After all, evergreens feature prominently in the cultural “Christmastime” narrative, a narrative played out in ads, in music, on the Internet, in stores and in public places everywhere starting no later than late November each year. That narrative is about Santa and presents, not about the second coming of Christ, the culmination of all things in Christ, or during Christmas Season itself, the birth of Christ and the mystery (and threatening implications!) of the Incarnation. That narrative is about comfort and consumerism. Our narrative is about God breaking the powers of oppression and injustice and breaking into our world through Incarnation to make a people who join God’s mission until God’s mission is fulfilled and all things are renewed.
If our symbols look just like the cultural ones, and we’re not being clear about how we’re using them, while the cultural narrative is quite clear, we may be underwriting a cultural narrative that both opposes and silences the one we intend to proclaim.
So, if it’s valuable for you, by all means hang greens.
Hang artificial greens at the beginning of Advent, and be clear about how our use points to the second coming and culmination of all things in Christ.
Or hang fresh greens nearer Christmas, and be clear about how our use points to the incarnation and life of God made flesh and dwelling among us, beginning in the birth of Jesus.
Or even do both– adding fresh greens nearer Christmas to the base of artificial ones provided during Advent.
Just be clear why.
And choose ritual elements that support the “why” you intend!