For years, generations of folks came out to the church on the corner of Route 22 and Thomas Run Road at Christmas time to see the splendor of Oak Grove Baptist Church's Living Christmas Tree.
Many families made it a holiday tradition through the years and the free tickets for the event always went quickly. Visitors of all ages and from all around filled the pews to capacity for each performance. It was the most popular show for miles around.
The voices of the choir filled the church sanctuary as the sound cascaded over the audience from the platforms on the nearly 40 foot steel structure designed to look like a traditional Christmas tree complete with lights, decorations and the choir.
Started in 1985 by then Minister of Music Rev. Ken Tipton, the performances went on for a stretch of 25 years, coming to an end in 2009.
Now, after a seven-year hiatus, one of Harford County's Christmas season traditions has returned and members of the church and the community are delighted.
Rev. Adam Lewandowski, Minister of Music and Worship, along with long time friend and Pastor at Oak Grove, Rev. Jim Testerman, and others decided it was time to bring back the popular event for the community.
"I was put on staff here in September 2016 and said well okay, the tree is coming back in 2017. The church knew when they hired me on that was going to be our goal for this year, and we got started on it right away," said Lewandowski.
Pulling off the seven performances, which begin Friday, Dec. 8, takes a small army of about 150 volunteers and months of planning and preparation. From choir practices, which began in July, to parking attendants and other helpers for the performances, everyone pulls together and makes it happen.
"We're resurrecting this monumental presentation of the gospel. It's easy to a degree though, because we already have all the parts. We have people here that know how to put it together. As big as it is, and as much of as an undertaking as it may seem, it actually was very easy and we had a great response from the people in the church to help. If the whole church doesn't get behind it, then it doesn't happen. We had a lot of support and with out that support, we just couldn't do it" Lewandowski said.
The 5,250 Living Tree tickets have already been reserved for this year's seven performances, according to the church's website, a sellout for each performance.
"I have been in every performance for 25 years, now 26. Not planning to miss any this year," Diane Henderson said proudly as she stood among some other friends in the lobby after a recent rehearsal session. "This is my Christmas. I love it, I really like being a part of it and I have the energy to do it."
A long-time member of Oak Grove Baptist Church, who now resides in Colorado but travels back to Maryland for part of the year, Henderson and her family have been part of the tree since it began. She now has five other family members, her daughter and four grandchildren, performing with her. "My family has been involved with this tree since day one. It makes it extra special and it makes me proud that they are carrying on and I guess, following my lead," she said as a large smile came to her face.
Ruby-Anne Saltzgiver has attended many of the performances over the years. This year, however, her perspective is a little different as she takes her place on one of the 10 levels of the tree to sing with the choir for the first time.
"I joined the church about four years ago and was disappointed that they were not doing the tree at that time," Saltzgiver said. "So when they started talking last year about bringing it back, I got very excited. I'm not getting any younger so, I knew I had to do it and I love to sing."
An 11 foot-star tops off the nearly 40-foot tall steel structure covered with 40,000 lights and 1,000 ornaments. Several oscillating fans help move the air backstage to keep the choir comfortable.
A highly coordinated team handling every aspect of the performance from the lighting and sound in the sanctuary to helping visitors with parking makes the performance seem flawless.
During a recent rehearsal the team was busy fine-tuning the show, paying special attention to details as the opening date draws closer.
"We've put together a "best of" collection of songs from years past for this year's performance." said Lewandowski, "If you've never seen the tree, this is something you do not want to miss. If you've seen if before, then you already know how beautiful it is."
For more information about the tree visit https://www.oakgrovebaptist.com/livingtree.