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When this church prepares its singing tree, its a big deal
New Holland Baptist presents its annual Singing Christmas Tree
New Holland Baptist Church rehearses its singing Christmas tree program. The church will present five performances of the program between today and Sunday.

Singing Christmas Tree

When: 4 and 6 p.m. today and 2, 4 and 6 p.m. Sunday
Where: New Holland Baptist Church, 7 Quarry St., Gainesville
How much: Free, call for tickets
More info: 770-534-9991

It's a big undertaking for a small church.

There's music to learn and memorize, sound and lights to work out and getting the singers, instrumentalists and technical workers all in sync.

Finding enough people to pull it off is a challenge.

But for its eighth season, New Holland Baptist Church in Gainesville will be presenting a singing Christmas tree musical performance.

"It is a very big commitment. In fact, we start in the first of July," said singer Patra Elder, who has been involved in the program all eight years.

The church, which has between 150 and 200 in attendance on any given Sunday, involves about 60 in the holiday program.

"It's a challenge every year to pull it off just because of manpower," said Mark Russell, associate pastor at the church and musical director of the program. Recently he lost a couple of good singers to the military.

Though a noble cause, he said, a loss like that affects his church choir more than it may affect a larger church producing a similar program.

Tina Gable, a trumpeter in the program, said the orchestra sometimes pulls in people from outside the church to make sure all the instruments are covered. But God always provides willing participants, she said.

Interest among church members has sustained the program, and it's grown through the years, Russell said.

The church first put together a living Christmas tree back in the 1980s. Russell said he came across photos of the event when preparing for the church's 100th anniversary a few years back, so he decided to try it again.

It has been an annual tradition ever since.

"This type (of) program is something that is more or less probably more associated with a large church," Russell said. "... We wanted to do something that would be kind of our niche among the smaller- to medium-sized congregations."

And the church has found that niche, with a yearly peak attendance of about 900 between the five performances.

The big difference between programs the church did before and the living Christmas tree? The church focuses more on bringing the community into the church, rather than providing something for just the congregation. Well that, and putting the singers in a Christmas tree shape.

"We really try to go for that wide appeal and to get the word out and get folks in," Russell said. "And it's been really good for us.

"It's a rough Christmas for a lot of people this year. And if they can come here for an hour and forget about that or refocus on what Christmas is all about, we've done what we're supposed to do."

Church members enjoy the outreach, too.

"It's really good to let the community know about us," Elder said. "And just present the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the reason for Christmas in the first place."

So how does the Christmas tree idea work?

Russell said the church found a local group to design and construct a Christmas tree-shaped frame to fit the church's small choir loft.

For the musical performance, the choir stands on risers surrounded by that Christmas tree frame. An orchestra, along with pianist and organist accompanies them.

It sounds easy enough, but with five performances in one weekend, it's a test of endurance.

"The endurance can be a challenge," Gable said, "because we aren't professional players. We aren't doing this every day."

Elder said memorization is a challenge for her, along with keeping her voice strong and not getting sick.

But she said "it's all worth it because we love doing it."

"It really gives you a sense of calm in the rush of the season," Gable said. "And you feel like it is really as much of a contribution to the outreach of the church as it is an internal or personal goal that you're able to learn the music and help contribute to the whole program."

This year's service, which lasts about an hour, will begin with a puppet show done by the teen ministry at the church. The living Christmas tree program itself will feature songs like "Mary, Did You Know," "Amen" and the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's "Messiah."

"It's a tremendous program for a small church, and we're really excited to perform it every year, we really are," Gable said. "It's a lot of work, but it's something that we look forward to doing."