Sheridan Horne climbs the Singing Christmas Tree

Shown here during a rehearsal, Sheridan Horne ascends the back of the Singing Christmas Tree at Orange Baptist Church. The senior at Orange County High School is in her second year as the soprano at the peak of the tree. 

Craig Jacobs remembers when the Singing Christmas Tree at Orange Baptist Church was decorated with red cedar and in later years with boxwood.

It was all very pretty, but with strings of old-fashioned colored lights pressed close to the branches, the longtime participant said with a flicker of remembered trepidation, “It could get warm.”

It got so warm, in fact, that singers occasionally keeled over in the towering tree-shaped structure where everyone is packed close together. Another veteran singer in the group, Meador Horne, said she recalls singers fainting during rehearsal and even during performances. The nurse and lifelong member of the church said she tells her fellow tree-singers to stay hydrated and “move their legs around every chance they get.”

Fainting isn’t the only hazard the singers have braved in the name of upholding a popular local tradition that has been going on for 36 years.

For the first 25 years, local firefighters sat in the front row at every performance. They may have been enjoying the songs of the season, but according to Singing Christmas Tree lore, they were ready to spring into action if they glimpsed a spark or caught a whiff of smoke.

The tree structure is much less of a fire hazard now that it has artificial branches and LED lights that don’t radiate heart the way the old bulbs did, and fans behind the risers keep the air circulating.

Everybody involved, longtime singers and newcomers alike, acknowledge it’s an unusual setup that requires some getting used to, but they love the tradition they consider the church’s gift to the community. The church hosted four performances of the Singing Christmas Tree last weekend.

Martha Mikula, the church’s director of music, starts planning the program in June. By late summer, weekly rehearsals are in session. By October, the group rehearses twice a week.

During a rehearsal not long before the event, she said there are 32 singers in the tree, plus several other choirs involved in the festive show. Althea Pace launched the tradition in 1974.

“It was her baby, her vision,” Mikula said.

The tree folded its branches after 25 years, Mikula continued, and then the Rev. Alan Miller, who came to the church as director of music and is now the minister, started it up again in 2009.

Lynn Compton of Orange has been a tree singer for all 36 years and has delighted in the program the whole time.

“I enjoy it so much—good music, good friends,” she said.

Not only that, “It’s a really good message of what Christmas is all about.”

Among the newer members of the choir are Douglas and Jacqueline Mow of Syria.

“I think it’s excellent,” said Douglas Mow, a retired Army colonel, of the festive choral performance. He and his wife met Mikula through local music circles and, though they aren’t church members, wanted to be part of the community tradition.

For Horne, the Singing Christmas Tree is rooted in her childhood. She and her parents and brother were all involved. These days, Horne and her husband and children continue the family involvement.

Daughter Sheridan Horne has advanced from participation in the children’s choir (at ground level) to the top spot in the tree.

A senior at Orange County High School, the young soprano is in her 11th year of participation and her second year singing from on high, just beneath the Christmas star.

Pausing for a few minutes before climbing up into the tree, she said mildly, “It’s a different experience singing up in the air.”

Because she is seated and belted into place, she is not too concerned about toppling to the floor, and whatever stage fright she might feel melts away once the show begins.

“When I get singing, all my worries go away,” she said. “I love music and I love performing.”

Being in the Singing Christmas Tree has only enhanced those happy feelings: “It brings a special joy to my soul when I hear people constantly complimenting it. I’ve heard so many people say that it’s a yearly tradition that brings about the Christmas spirit.”

Hilary Holladay covers education and politics for the Orange County Review. The author of five books, she is currently writing a biography of the poet Adrienne Rich.

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