The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


The gift

Chrismons—white tree ornaments in symbols of the faith—allow the senses of sight, word, thought and wonder to comprehend the grace and peace offered to us through the origins of the Christian story. Many congregations decorate a tree with them now. Perhaps yours? I grew up in the small Lutheran church where Chrismons were created, and I knew Frances Spencer who started it all.

Frances Kipps was the child of Lutheran missionaries to Japan who eventually settled in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She came to Danville, Va., in the 1930s, the bride of Harry Spencer. Harry worked in the tobacco industry as a middleman, and Frances clerked in a downtown store. They were members of Ascension Lutheran Church, where my family belonged.

"Tree day" was the event at our church. It usually occurred on the first Saturday during Advent. On one particular tree day, I happened to be sitting beside Mrs. Spencer, the only woman allowed inside the church this day. I was quite intimidated—her Chrismons already were famous with us. Mustering all of my courage, I asked her, "What is the most important Chrismon?"

She spoke softly: "Young Mr. Adams, when you come to church next Sunday, I want you to look at all of the Chrismons on the tree. In the middle you will see two rings: those Chrismons depict the life of Christ."

And then she took off her wedding band and held it in front of me and said, "A circle represents eternity. That is why I depicted the life of Christ in a circle. Remember, God has been with you always, he is with you now, and he will be with you forever."

I've never forgotten that moment. And through the years since, I've marveled at how the Chrismon Christian message spread internationally to nearly 170 nations from a woman who couldn't attend seminary or even serve on church council.

Even as a small boy I knew that Frances Spencer longed to have a child. I remember my parents talking about it, but quietly, in a language of respect.

Here is Frances' story: In early January 1957 when she had finished taking down the ornaments on the Christmas tree in her home, she was feeling quite melancholy. Looking at the empty tree and pondering the emptiness of the world and her wish for a child, what did Frances do? As her Lutheran pastor father had taught her, she began to pray. "God, if I were Mary and Jesus were my child, how would I decorate this empty tree?"

God's answer came. And Frances began to work. She made dozens of ornaments depicting the symbols of Christ that we call Chrismons. That next December there was one Chrismon tree in the world—and it was in our little church.

Today there are many thousands. Through Frances, Lutherans have been able to convey Christ's message of grace, hope, peace, compassion and the love of all to many people, cultures and countries.

And to me. Every Christmas Eve I look at the tree in my current church, Christ the King Lutheran, Cary, N.C., and see the different Chrismons against the tree's sharp green and the radiance of the white lights. But more, the Chrismon tree shows me a mother's love for her child. I see Mary with Jesus, and then I hear the language of Frances' prayer. With faith, I know her gift was received by God.

I know her gift has been shared. In fact, she had the Chrismons design copyrighted through Ascension.

Now, more than 30 years after her death, Frances' prayer is answered with each Chrismon placed on every Christmas tree—as the ornaments tell of God's love for us in Jesus.


This week's front page features:

cover2On our two-way street of faith: (right) International exchanges strengthen churches.

Oh, light eight candles, laughing.

'I want ... to help': ELCA youth deliver the gifts at Christmas.

Where the Wild Things Are : Modern adaptation of popular book captures childhood.
Also: Addressing our restlessness.

Also: Not 'someone else's problem.'

AlsoLutheran LEGO guy.

Read these articles at our front page ...


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February issue


Embracing diversity