Christmas is a main event for most churches. Crowds swell, services double, and it's all-hands-on-deck for the weeks that are leading up to December 25.
Things will come up, plans will change there is only so much that you can do to prepare for the unknown.
For stage designers, it's natural at this point to want to think "out of the box," but often that initial goal is to be "tasteful and traditional."
Over the years, I've tried many different approaches and used a variety of elements -some which were better received than others and now when I sit down to plan for Christmas, I do so with the following three questions in mind:
1. How BIG do I really need to go?
Christmas is the time when most people want to go all out. But that doesn't mean it has to look like a Vegas show. The key to designing well, is knowing the vision of the leadership before you start planning.
Do they want to walk into a room that is beautiful and timeless? Would you rather do what has been done in the past, and how was it received? Are you working around other production pieces such as children's performances, or having something that needs to be reproduced for smaller campuses? It is always wise to think about how such a designed set will function and interact with the rest of the Christmas service.
Make sure you have options, if there are any last-minute changes to the service (full choir, actors, special guests/performances).
If you are streaming, or running IMAG, it is significantly important to be thinking about camera shots and planning for which part of the design will be in the background. With today's media, there are often more people who will see the stage via a screen, versus from a seat in the room.
Now, there are some churches who want to create the "wow" factor, and you will need to deliver on that; but going too big can also backfire (it can inhibit future set designs as well).
Among the things I have incorporated in a service in the past, is that I have made it snow outside during our candle-lit moment, while people were exiting the building. This was a beautiful addition to Christmas Eve services, but it only worked, because the worship room was flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows and the video team captured the softly falling snow. Also, for a Southern California church, this was definitely a "wow" feature, but it probably would not translate nearly as well for a church nestled in the Rockies.
At the same time, it doesn't have to over the top. Simple, green, pre-lit Christmas trees look great and can completely transform a stage (and then adding fake plastic movie snow can take it up another notch!) Bottom line: don't overdo it. Make sure the design fits the church and the vision of the church's leadership.
2. What is your budget?
This is one of the most difficult things to talk about, because budgets can vary, depending on church size and what they are seeking to achieve. My advice: don't let the budget ruin the design. Don't leave a planning meeting deflated, because what you thought you had to spend was just cut in half.
Decide on a couple components (or one) that are worth spending money on, and then find creative ways to do the rest for less.
If you have multiple campuses, then look to purchase materials in bulk and gather a large group of volunteers for work days.
Also, don't be afraid to ask vendors for discounts, or to take an idea and then use inexpensive materials to do something similar (the internet is full of creative ideas on how to do this).
Also, you will have to come up with a new design for January, so get creative. I once revealed a new set at the first of the year by simply eliminating all of the Christmas elements (trees, snow and lights). This allowed my Christmas budget to be larger since I wasn't adding anything new to the set design in January, just reimplementing certain elements from the prior set design.
3. Do I have time to do everything?
Other than budget, this is what causes the most problems for designers. You can draft the most amazing idea, and get approval for a large budget for Christmas, but if you don't have help to complete all of the needed components, it means you'll be working overtime to pull it together. One thing I've learned over the years, nothing is worth wearing myself down for. I still need be sharp for each of the Christmas services right around the corner.
One year, a friend of mine designed an intricate paper ring backdrop for his Christmas services, which was perfect for their space. He quickly recognized that there was no way he could complete the project all on his own. From there, the entire church was called upon to lend a hand. Very specific directions were sent out to each of the church's small groups (complete with pictures). Within two weeks, they had completed more than what was originally needed.
The best part of employing such a large group of volunteers, is that the entire church felt connected to the Christmas set, and everyone ended up loving the finished product.
In completing such a project, there will clearly be outside constraints (budgets, design approval, size of the space, manpower), so make sure that you're allowing enough time to plan, get quotes from vendors, and provide enough time actually do the work to install, program and rehearse.
Things will come up, plans will change there is only so much that you can do to prepare for the unknown, so make sure you are delegating to others.
It's OK to cut aspects of your design, if you realize there simply isn't enough time to do it and to do it well.
Chances are you'll be the only one to notice slight changes that are made to the set, and the audience will still end up being amazed.
Lastly, the goal is excellence, not perfection; if volunteers are making your life easier, don't expect them to produce what you could, as a skilled professional.
My final piece of advice is something I circle back to every year and encourage others with let Jesus be the star of Christmas. He is the reason we plan and do all of this work, to gather people and share the Christmas story.
Don't lose sight of why you do what you do it will help you maintain joy while in the midst of a busy season.