The Christmas period is a very special time to be in Orlando. So many great events fill the calendar from SeaWorld’s Christmas Celebration, the Candelight Procession at Epcot, Mickey’s Christmas Party at Magic Kingdom, the Osborne family lights at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Universal Orlando’s Macy’s Parade to mention but a few, but perhaps the best, and one you don’t hear much about might well be The Singing Christmas Trees.
One of Orlando’s best kept secrets sees over 300 members of the First Baptist Choir combine their singing talents alongside a full orchestra with a backdrop of two astonishingly gigantic Christmas trees. The amazing trees host the choir as well as feature over 250,000 lights that dance to the music and create a one-of-a-kind spectacle that really has to be seen to be believed.
The Singing Christmas Trees has been staged in Orlando since 1980 although there was a two year break from 2006 to 2007. The Singing Christmas Trees were brought back in 2008 because of public demand and we simply can’t imagine the Orlando Christmas scene without them.
The Singing Christmas Tree’s are 40 feet tall, made up of 15 tiers, and house approximately 150 choir members per tree. This magnificent production was the result of a vision by former Pastor Jim Henry. It was in 1978 that Henry confronted Ragan Vandegriff, the then Minister of Music, recalling that it would take “a step faith” to launch this project. Henry said he wanted a “signature event with the priceless treasure and message of Jesus Christ.”
The first production of the Singing Trees debuted in 1980 at First Baptist Orlando’s downtown location, opening with “Do You Hear What I Hear,” directed by Vandegriff.
While the first five years featured a single tree, the church moved to its current campus on John Young Parkway in 1985 and they realized that it would be necessary to further expand the production to accommodate the larger stage. “One tree would have appeared “diminuendo,” according to Vandegriff so the task of writing music for two trees began. This often involved having “one tree call and the other one answer,” according to Deric Johnson, the music arranger at the time.
The trees were designed and structurally engineered by Walter G. Keller, who passed away in September of this year. “You can put a Mack truck on each tree and it would withstand the weight,” Keller explained sometime before his death and considering the average American weight, both trees combined contain almost 50,000 pounds of these live, vocalized ornaments.
The entire program consists of church members, under the direction of the church staff, that volunteer their time and talent to bring to the audience this celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. In all, around 1,000 people donate their time and they come from all professions, industries and backgrounds. You’ll find doctors, secretaries, sales persons, office clerks, lawyers, homemakers, warehouse workers and students all coming together to lend their individual talents to produce one of the best Christmas shows you’ll ever have the privilege to see.
The trees are erected in November by weekday volunteers and staff members and after the structures are set in place, pre-wired panels containing the 250,000 lights are secured. Miles of wires and cables are then connected to computers that synchronize the brilliant display to the music. Each tree contains about 60 panels and they all must be independently tested after they are attached to the tree structure. This is performed by plugging each color of each panel into a power source and checking each and every bulb. If an individual bulb is burned out, it can be replaced, however, there are times when an entire string of lights need to be restrung. It is these meticulous efforts that help to create this spectacular event.
The choir, under the direction of Jon Marks, Worship Pastor, then met every Sunday afternoon and Wednesday evening to learn and practice the songs. At the onset of the practices, the choir room was set up into designated areas where the altos, basses, baritones, sopranos and tenors would sit according to their voice range. On designated Sunday afternoon practices, the various vocal ranges would initially meet in separate rooms, then they would all gather back in the main choir room to bring it all together with the full choral effect.
Robert Elkins, Musical Director &Arranger, leads the 70 piece orchestra and some of these musicians are professionals, while others volunteer their services as they take time off from Walt Disney World and other local attractions where they hold regular jobs.
Another important set of volunteers are the “Tree Rats.” Primarily they are young and nimble and they need to be. Behind the scenes, the “rats” play a crucial role as they crawl through the maze of pipes and platforms to help make the choir feel comfortable and safe. They will tap on a choir member’s foot and massage their legs to keep blood circulating during the 90 minute performance. Along with a tag pasted on the member’s ankle that indicates the position number and name, they may also choose to tape a tasty piece of candy for the tree rat in appreciation. One year, however, a choir member taped a bag of M&Ms to her leg and when the rat opened the bag, the candy pieces dropped several rows bouncing and pinging off the pipes on the descent. That form of reward was subsequently banned.
The tree “rats” also move the wooden boxes into place before each choir member assumes his or her standing position. These boxes are custom made and allow the appearance of a more uniform height for each member. For example, if a member is five-foot three, the box would be nine inches tall making the appeared height as six feet.
The trees are loaded from a series or ramps and ladders that cannot be seen by the audience. Some choir members take their positions from the ground level while those in the higher section load from the second level behind the trees. This process is engineered to keep the weight properly distributed filling the lower levels first. The final position, the “star” of the tree, is the last one to assume her post hovering forty-five feet over the Worship Center stage.
This years performance sees a Grandfather telling his Grandson Max the Christmas story. The performance begins with “The Joy of Christmas Overture Carol Medley” and as the performance develops other Christmas favorites like Emmanuel, O Holy Night, and I’ll Be Home For Christmas can be heard. One favorite is a revamped version of Jingle Bells that has been adapted to a more modern and fun version. The Singing Christmas Trees is a fantastic production and it all comes to an end rather too soon as the Hallelujah Chorus rings out to bring the celebration to an end.
Make sure you plan a trip to The Singing Christmas Trees in 2012. For now, you can enjoy the video below and more pictures at Facebook.com/FloridaLeisure
You can also order a DVD copy of the performance from First Baptist Orlando here.