Nativity’s annual ‘Hanging of the Greens’ starts with the dynamic dozen

Above, art and environment committee member Rita Thackery garnishes the tree with silver branches in preparation for the ornaments to be hung. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JILL RAGAR ESFELD

by Jill Ragar Esfeld

LEAWOOD — Church of the Nativity here is gearing up for the “Hanging of the Greens,” an annual festival that brings the entire parish together to decorate the church for Christmas.

Parishioners are already staking claims for the task that best matches their talents: unpacking Nativity figures; hanging wreaths; trimming the tree; arranging poinsettias; or just setting up hundreds of extra chairs — there’s something for everyone.

The tradition was started by pastor Father Francis Hund six years ago, but it isn’t anything new.

“Hanging of the Greens” is a custom practiced at many churches, schools, colleges and universities throughout the world.

It dates back to Old English days when people would bring evergreens into their homes during Advent as a symbol of eternal life and a reminder that the bleak days of winter are followed by spring.

At Church of the Nativity, the tradition is orchestrated by the art and environment committee — a group of 12 women working behind the scenes to visually enhance every celebration of the liturgy.

“This is a wonderful ministry,” said Kathy Elson, head of the committee. “It gets a little hectic at Christmas because you’re trying to balance family and church.

“But to be able to uplift people and raise their minds and heart at these special church times is very fulfilling.”

Elson views the ministry as a vocation. She was prayerfully searching for a way to volunteer her time after her oldest son graduated from high school.

“I got a call from Father Ron (former pastor Father Ronald Livojevich),” she said. “And I thought, ‘Well, this must be it, so I’d better say yes.’

“And I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

That was 12 years ago.

Elson learned on the job and slowly recruited a group of talented individuals who can creatively put together just about anything.

For instance, one Lent Father Hund asked for a big rock.

“We papier-mâchéd over a table and we built him a giant rock,” said Elson. “And it looked pretty good.”

Dana Mullin joined the group a year ago, after working in the floral arranging industry.

When her husband Jim entered the permanent diaconate program, she   retired from floral arranging so she could be more of a support to him.

That allowed her to volunteer her talent with art and environment.

“Which is wonderful,” she said. “I’m never closer to God than when I am in nature. And this — getting to play with all God’s beautiful creations — is pretty awesome.”

The secret to Elson’s recruitment success, according to Mullin, is making sure everyone has fun.

“She’s always up here,” said Mullin. “And she’s so patient with everyone.

“I’m sure [Elson] would like to be doing the fun stuff, but she lets us do it instead.”

Elson’s philosophy is simple.

“Keep the volunteers happy and they’ll keep volunteering,” she said. “I can sweep the floor.”

As often happens with those involved in church ministry, this group lives by the liturgical calendar.

“And that’s beautiful,” said Mullin. “You become so connected to the liturgy — all the aspects and nuances that are thousands of years old.”

Art and environment is actually part of the liturgy committee.

“We meet once a month,” said Elson. “We all plan the liturgies for the coming seasons, and that includes the readings and the music and the environment.”

The planning is meticulous and prayerful with the goal of enhancing the liturgical experience, but never overshadowing it.

“We always strive to raise people’s minds and heart to another level,” said Elson. “But we never want to be the center of attention.”

Advent begins the church calendar and presents the challenge of telling in a new way a story that’s been told thousands of times before.

This year, Church of the Nativity Christmas tree will display pictures of the corporal works of mercy performed by parishioners throughout the Year of Mercy.

During the festival of the Hanging of the Greens, parishioners will hang stars on the tree as a sign of being a light of hope for others.

The festival will take place on the evening of Dec. 21 this year.

Cookies and bottled water will be shared during the decorating, and a Christmas craft will be available for children.

“The choir is practicing while we’re decorating,” said Elson. “So we have Christmas music.”

Art and environment committee members will be stationed throughout the church to give directions to parishioners taking part in the event.

“Father Francis instituted this and it has been such a great celebration and festival,” said Elson. “The parishioners take ownership and they decorate this entire church.

“They will make the Lord’s house beautiful for people.”

About the author

Jill Esfeld

Jill Ragar Esfeld received a degree in Writing from Missouri State University and started her profession as a magazine feature writer, but quickly transitioned to technical/instructional writing where she had a successful career spanning more than 20 years. She returned to feature writing when she began freelancing for The Leaven in 2004. Her articles have won several awards from the Catholic Press Association. Jill grew up in Christ the King parish in Kansas City, Missouri; and has been a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Kansas, for 35 years.

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