How to Decorate the Altar in the Christian Seasons
The Christian church year is split up into two main sections: the festival season and the non-festival season. During the festival season, the church celebrates all of its church festivals, including Christmas and Easter. Each season and each individual festival calls for specific decorations on the altar of the church. While these decorations are not necessarily required, many churches use them to reflect the season and celebrate and honor God. Regardless of which denomination the church belongs to, the same basic decoration rules apply for each season.
1Decorate with the color blue or purple
Decorate with the color blue or purple during the Advent season leading up to Christmas. This season is the preparation of the birth of Jesus. Some churches use blue to signify hope, while other use purple to reflect royalty.
Use white for all major Christian festivals that are directly related to God. This includes Christmas, Easter, Ascension and sometimes Epiphany. White is the symbol of purity and glory.
Adorn the altar with purple during the Lenten season leading up to Holy Week. During this time, Christians reflect on the life of Jesus and his journey to the cross. Purple is the symbol of royalty, but also represents fasting and penitence, which are important aspects of the Lent season.
Place red decorations on the altar for all festivals that relate to the Holy Spirit. The most common days to use this color are Pentecost and any mission festivals.
5Decorate the altar with green
Decorate the altar with green during the non-festival season. Some churches also use green on Ephiphany and Pentecost instead of white or red. Green is symbolic of the growth of a Christian's faith.
6Leave the altar
Leave the altar clear of any decoration for Holy Week, including Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The empty altar symbolizes the sacrifice that Jesus made for all sinners and the unworthiness of sinners. Some churches still decorate with purple for Ash Wednesday and use black for Good Friday instead of leaving the altar empty.
7Place flowers on the altar during any season
Place flowers on the altar during any season, with the exception of Holy Week, when the altar should remain empty. The flowers can reflect the growing season or match the appropriate church-season color. In some churches, members donate the money to purchase flowers for the altar.
Ideas for home altars and spaces during Lent, Holy Week, and Easter
(These are just suggestions; use them as a starting point)
Suggested supplies and location:
Have a place to put a small cloth, a cross, maybe standing or leaning against something else, and one or more candles. For Lent through Easter, you may like to have the following supplies:
- Candles, optionally including purple, red, and white.
- Cloths or placemats, purple, red, black, and white
- Drapes/Veils of thin material in purple, red and black
Ash Wednesday—Feb. 17, Liturgical color: purple
Gather a small amount of ashes. If you have a dry palm frond from last year, this is ideal. Burn a palm frond, a few dry sticks, or other dry plant material, carefully, in a heatproof or metal dish, down to ashes. Put these in a small dish in front of your cross. You may wish to have a purple cloth in your space and consider a purple drape or veil on your cross. Consider arranging dried sticks or thorns in your space or using purple candles.
Remainder of Lent: Feb. March 27,
Remove the ashes, but the altar is the same, dry sticks or thorns, purple cloth and purple drapes.
Palm Sunday: March 28, Liturgical color: red
Gather palm fronds which we will make available to parishioners. Arrange these in vases or on your altar. Use red candles if you wish. You may choose to drape your cross in red as well.
Maundy Thursday: 4/1/ Liturgical color: red
Remove the palms. Leave the red cloth and drapes. Have a small bowl of water and a small pitcher and cloth to symbolize the washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus. Have a piece of bread on a small plate and a small amount of wine in a glass to represent the Eucharist on your altar. At the end of the evening strip your altar, removing all the candles and the cloths and leaving bare wood.
Good Friday: 4/2/ Liturgical color: none or black
Consider draping your cross in black this day, or you may choose to remove the cross from your altar. No candles. Your altar may have just bare wood or a black cloth.
Holy Saturday: 4/3/ Liturgical color: black or none until Easter vigil, then white.
Keep your altar bare or in black until 8 pm, then put out a white cloth, white candles, white Easter lilies or white flowers. Go all out! This is celebratory. Light your candles at the Easter vigil and ring some bells!
Easter Sunday: 4/4/ Liturgical color: white
Continue your celebration of the Resurrection with white flowers and cloths.
The National Cathedral has a variety of offerings for Lent and Easter. Check them out.
There are surprisingly few official rules about decorating churches, much to the chagrin of those who have been crowded out by Christmas poinsettias or engulfed by Easter lilies. At times, admittedly, the altar looks like its been attacked by a rioting mob of florists.
Much of what we do is based on tradition and preference. There are, however, two church documents that offer guidance on the subject of church decor. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) provides direction on how the Mass should be celebrated. It is very specific about aspects of the liturgy that are to be the same everywhere but more general about other areas, leaving it to local bishops to provide guidelines. Church decorating is one of those latter areas.
The GIRM offers this useful bit of wisdom: “Moderation should be observed in the decoration of the altar.” The paragraph specifically addresses floral decorations in Advent (shouldn’t overshadow the joy of Christmas) and Lent (no flowers, with some exceptions). In general it says that flowers should be used sparingly and never on top of the altar itself. But that is the only specific thing this document has to say about seasonal decorations.
The very last paragraph of the GIRM gives perhaps the best advice: “Every effort should be made to ensure that . . . the canons of art be appropriately taken into account and that noble simplicity come together with elegance.”
The bishops of the United States have published guidelines for church art and architecture that also touch on seasonal decoration, Built of Living Stones. It says that seasonal decorations should “draw people to the true nature of the mystery being celebrated rather than being ends in themselves.” They should also “enhance the primary liturgical points of focus,” that is, the altar, lectern, and presider’s chair. (Enhance, not overwhelm!) And it gives a few specifics: Living flowers and plants are preferred to artificial greenery; seasonal decorations should remain throughout the whole season; traditional objects such as Advent wreaths and Christmas cribs should be proportional to the space; banners are most effective when they do not carry words (including joy, hope, and peace).
When this document discusses art in general, though, it offers a great deal for those who decorate to ponder: “Quality art draws the beholder to the Creator,” and “appropriateness is demonstrated by the work’s ability to bear the weight of mystery, awe, reverence, and wonder.”
That may seem a lot to ask of a few poinsettias or a banner or two, but even these humble additions to our churches should point us toward prayer and praise.
Noble simplicity with elegance. Quality. Appropriateness. Not rules. But great guidelines, don’t you think?
Image: Flickr cc via Saint Joseph
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The Lenten season in the liturgical year is designated as a time of repentance, sacrifice and self-denial. During Lent, the physical appearance of the church needs to change to emphasize these aspects of the Lenten season. Decorations must be minimal and so thought should be given to choosing something significant. Remember also, that whatever decorations are selected for the Lenten season will be used from Ash Wednesday until Holy Thursday so they should be durable. Decorations are changed on Good Friday, when the death of Jesus Christ is solemnly remembered and observed by the church. On Easter Sunday, decorations will change once again to reflect the joy of the resurrection.
From a practical standpoint, the decorations should be low maintenance. This is not the time for live flowers. The starkness need not be unattractive, however. There are many beautiful options using fabrics to drape areas of the church in purple, which is the traditional color for Lent. The judicious use of candles or even simple banners can be used in place of what is usually on display. If you want to use plants, consider succulents or non-flowering house plants. How should one start when charged with the task of decorating for Lent?
My suggestion is to remove everything you possibly can. Then look at what is left and unmovable and decide purposefully on what items you will add. Many churches choose to cover all the statues and crucifix in purple throughout Lent. Another thought is to minimize the amount of covering on the altar. Letting the beauty of the wood or stone or marble show can be very effective. While you are in the decluttering spirit, take this time to organize your supply closet. It’s time to weed out the silk flowers that have seen their day, or the burnt-out candles or the items that just don’t work in your space. Being able to see what you have and taking care to preserve the good stuff will serve you well throughout the year.
I can’t emphasize enough how important the time you spend in creating environment is! Do not be haphazard in your approach. I recall one Ash Wednesday while I was working at Drew University, they provided an Ecumenical service for ashes. It took place in a very industrial, utilitarian multi-purpose room, yet the decoration was impressive in its simplicity. The lights were dimmed, and a folding table draped with a purple cloth, a simple candle and a wreath that resembled the crown of thorns were placed upon it along with several bowls with ashes. The room took on a holy presence and peacefulness due to nothing more than some good décor.
In the early post Vatican II years, there was a lot of creativity in church appearances some good and some awful. Due in part to the need to re-orient the sanctuary to include altars that faced the people, elimination of altar rails, emphasis on special places to proclaim the word, changes in music ministry, our churches needed to respond in their décor as well as architecture. At that time many churches would remove the water from the holy water fonts during Lent. This is a case of an idea that does not properly use the symbol. The idea was to show the dryness and thirst of the 40 days in the desert. This contradicts however, the notion of the holy water being the symbol and reminder of our baptismal promises. It was later determined that the water should remain during Lent and thankfully churches no longer send the conflicting message about this symbol. You can see how decorations can go awry.
If your usual sanctuary is cluttered, Lent is a wonderful excuse to do some thoughtful editing of decorations. People will understand that Lent is a simpler, less ornate time and so, it is a very good chance to make changes. Just because the church was “gifted” with Aunt Suzie’s painting of the Blessed Mother, or Grandma’s favorite saint statue doesn’t mean it has to be out on display days of the year. Indeed, by being selective, we can better honor these donations by assuring that they have a purpose and meaning. The painting of Mary makes sense during Marion feasts, or during May which is dedicated to Mary, or if your church’s name is Our Lady of____ it does not add much when used all year round.
Another “sin” of church décor is in the redundancy of symbols such as crosses and crucifixes. You need one and only one at the altar area. Whether it hangs above or behind or is placed on the altar itself is not important. I’ve seen way too many churches who have a cross/crucifix on the wall, and one on the altar, and a processional cross which goes in a holder during the Mass, and then crosses on the ambo, on the pulpit, on the vestments on and on. It’s not necessary and at worst it can distract and detract from the liturgical actions. While we’re talking “crosses” here remember that on Good Friday, when the congregation comes up to venerate the cross, there should only be that one cross not multiple ones to “keep the line moving.”
Unless you are a professional designer, it is challenging to create a cohesive worship space on a budget, or in a place that is not your own, or in a setting that must be broken down and set up each week. Blending of styles is not easy. Eclectic and artsy works on HGTV but for the volunteer charged with decorating the church it can backfire into looking like a table at the church rummage sale instead of the beautiful sanctuary that was intended.
When Lent is over, and Easter comes, of course you will be decorating much differently. There will be lilies and other spring flowers and symbols of resurrection abounding. This is appropriate and good. As we move past this season, however, and return to Ordinary Time, don’t be so quick to put everything back. Look at your worship space with a critical eye. Resist the temptation to restore what was there before Lent began. Thank you to those of you who have taken on this ministry (yes, it is a ministry) and may God bless your efforts.
St. Francis of Assisi ANCC (Glen Ridge, NJ)
Altar good decorations friday
Stripping of the Altar
The Stripping of the Altar or the Stripping of the Chancel is a ceremony carried out in many Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist churches on Maundy Thursday.
At the end of the Maundy Thursday liturgy in Methodist parishes, the chancel is traditionally stripped; black paraments are sometimes added for Good Friday as black is the liturgical colour of Good Friday in the Methodist Churches. Methodist custom holds that apart from depictions of the Stations of the Cross, other images (such as the altar cross) continue the Lenten habitude of being veiled.
In addition to the stripping of the altar at the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday liturgy in Lutheran Churches, the "lectern and pulpit are [also] left bare until Easter to symbolize the humiliation and barrenness of the cross."
In Anglican Churches, this ceremony is also performed at the conclusion of Maundy Thursday services, "in which all appointments, linens, and paraments are removed from the altar and chancel in preparation for Good Friday."
In the earlier form of the Roman Rite, the stripping of the altar was done at the end of Mass of the Lord's Supper on Maundy Thursday. It is still carried out. All altars in the church, except for the altar of repose, are stripped. In the present form of the Roman Rite, as revised in , there is no ceremony of stripping the altar. At a suitable time after the Mass the altar is stripped, usually by the sacristan, and crosses are removed from the church, if possible. There is no Mass on Good Friday or Holy Saturday, the next one being that of the Easter Vigil. On Good Friday, a white cloth is placed on the altar for the last part of the Celebration of the Passion of the Lord, after the conclusion of which the altar is stripped, again privately, except that the cross remains on the altar with two or four candlesticks.
The form of the Roman Rite in use immediately before the reform of the Easter Triduum ceremonies by Pope Pius XII in had a formal ceremony of stripping the altar as a conclusion of the Holy Thursday Mass, which was then celebrated in the morning. After removing the ciborium from the high altar to the altar of repose, the priest, accompanied by the other ministers, went to the sacristy, where he took off his white Mass vestments and donned a violet stole. Then, with the other ministers, he removed the altarcloths, vases of flowers, antependium and all other ornaments then customarily placed on the altar. Unlike present usage, the altar cross and candlesticks were left on the altar. This was done to the accompaniment of Psalm 22 (Vulgate) (Deus, Deus meus) preceded and followed by the antiphon "Diviserunt sibi vestimenta mea: et super vestem meam miserunt sortem" ("They divided my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment").
In earlier centuries, the altars were in some churches washed with a bunch of hyssop dipped in wine and water. Augustine Joseph Schulte says that this was done "to render them in some manner worthy of the Lamb without stain who is immolated on them, and to recall to the minds of the faithful with how great purity they should assist at the Holy Sacrifice and receive Holy Communion." He adds that the ceremony was intended as homage offered to Jesus in return for his humbly washing the feet of his disciples, the ceremonial commemoration of which was, before , carried out separately from the Mass and stripping of the altar.
Eamonn Duffy alludes to this ceremony in his book The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, –, a history of popular religion in pre-Reformation England.
- ^Living Lutheran, The Three Days: Traditions of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Vigil of Easter.
- ^Duck, Ruth C. (). Worship for the Whole People of God: Vital Worship for the 21st Century. Westminster John Knox Press. p. ISBN. Retrieved 13 April
- ^Hickman, Hoyt L. (1 July ). United Methodist Altars: A Guide for the Congregation (Revised Edition). Abingdon Press. p. ISBN.
- ^Fakes, Dennis R. (). Exploring Our Lutheran Liturgy. CSS Publishing. p. ISBN.
- ^Publishing, Morehouse (). The Episcopal Handbook, Revised Edition. Church Publishing, Inc. p. ISBN.
- ^Roman Missal. Thursday of the Lord's Supper,
- ^Roman Missal. Friday of the Passion of the Lord (Good Friday),
- ^Roman Missal, Friday of the Passion of the Lord (Good Friday),
- ^ abHerbermann, Charles, ed. (). "Stripping of an Altar". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company..
Among the assembly on Palm Sunday and Good Friday are many who do not attend weekly Sunday Mass. The cross draws the faithful close; we come longing for the wonder of its mystery. Holy Week and the sacred Triduum foster full, active participation in the Paschal Mystery that brings the Church ever close to God.
Mindful preparation for this week allocates time for the art and environment team to make smooth, prayerful transitions from Passion Sunday to the Easter Vigil. Inviting members of the parish to help accomplishes three goals: freeing prayer time for the art and environment team, welcoming liturgical participation for those who might feel too busy, and providing catechetical experiences for those who assist. Children who help their parents carry plants in a procession will remember the liturgy far longer than those who stayed in the pews; the baker who prepared unleavened bread for the Holy Thursday celebration will feel a deepening of prayer as the priest prays, "Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made."
Before Christmas, gather with your core team to study the scriptures. Passion Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil have distinctive faces. Discuss the rituals, so that both the flow and theology are understood. Palm Sunday's procession, Holy Thursday's foot washing, Good Friday's veneration of the cross, and the Baptisms of the Easter Vigil need special attention from the art and environment team. Inviting the pastor and parish liturgist to these early meetings is important. Consult your notes from prior years; what has worked well? What needs to be changed?
Determine the non-negotiable elements of each liturgy. For example, Passion Sunday calls for red vesture, Holy Thursday's color is white, Good Friday's is red, and the Easter Vigil is white. The weekdays between maintain the violet vesture of Lent. The parish procession of oils from the Chrism Mass happens at the Mass of the Lord's Supper. The pastor and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults team coordinate the Baptisms. Tapping into the natural flow of the rituals can assist with your tasks: the flowers that ornament the sanctuary for the Mass of the Lord's Supper may be removed as part of the procession of the Blessed Sacrament to the chapel.
Ritual changes from the Roman Missal regarding the Triduum are available at the U.S. Bishop's Committee for Divine Worship Web site. "Fourteen Questions on the Paschal Triduum" answers common queries regarding these celebrations.
Begin a task list and delegate to-do items. Check on the parish environment budget. Someone can call a floral supplier while another inventories fabrics and materials; a veteran member may create a complete task list, or each member of the committee might plot the tasks and materials for a particular day.
At your next meeting, review the task lists that have been created. Determine which tasks can be delegated to members of the community and begin recruiting. Invite people to participate in concrete ways. Will plants need to be trimmed and repotted? The towels for foot-washing and immersion Baptisms will need to be laundered. An outdoor fire to begin the Easter Vigil needs a tender. Personal invitations to complete a specific task generate the best and most volunteers. Once-a-week work meetings during Lent assure everything is ready for the decorating marathon of Holy Week.
The ministry of art and environment serves a single purpose: engaging the senses to help the faithful enter more fully into relationship with God. Familiar sights and smells evoke memories of celebrations past; new scents and displays facilitate a glimpse of the eternal. Rely on both.
Passion Sunday begins as the assembly, with palm branches in hand, gather to hear the Gospel account of Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem. In less than a week, our Messiah will be both greeted with "Hosanna!" and hang humiliated on a cross. Red dominates this day, but glimpses of violet remain as the weekdays leading to Triduum are still to come. Streamers of red ribbon with thin violet trimmings can be displayed atop banner poles, suspended from hooks (swivel hooks sold with fishing equipment will move in the wind without twisting the ribbons) or carried. Palm branches will be distributed and blessed for home use; use larger fronds to decorate the walls of the church and place branches amid the greenery of existing plants. This is a logical time to purchase new potted palms that will be used throughout the year. Inexpensive red blooms, such as carnations or alstroemeria, may be placed in vases among plants, but save lavish floral arrangements for Easter. Simple red banners may adorn the walls of the church. Be judicious in your effort-Passion Sunday should look festive compared to the austerity of Lent, but like the crowds lining the streets of Jerusalem, its celebration is short-lived. Leave the flowers, palms, and fabrics in place for the weekdays of Holy Week.
Triduum begins with the Mass of the Lord's Supper, celebrated on Holy Thursday evening. Aside from Morning Prayer, there are no other celebrations this day; wait until after Morning Prayer to transform the church. Decorating should be done in moderation (Missale Romanum, Mass of the Lord's Supper, #5). Red banners need to be removed and stored; white banners may-but need not-replace them. Blooming plants such as mums, daisies or kolanches, and new ivy plants can be used today and become filler for your Easter plan. Set up foot-washing stations in places where the assembly can easily see the ritual. Position plants in the sanctuary, taking care not to obscure the altar or obstruct the path of the ministers. Make sure the pitchers, basins, and towels for the foot washing are of ample size.
The place where the Blessed Sacrament will be carried for repose must be simply decorated. Those in procession can carry the white candles and plants from the church. After the church is empty, the altar should be stripped in preparation for Good Friday. All other plants and candles should be removed.
Plan to prepare the church for the Liturgy of the Lord's Passion and death after Friday's Morning Prayer. Simple preparations are in order. Use red fabric sparingly to veil the cross that will be used for veneration, making sure it can be gracefully removed in sections. Choose a cross that will permit the veneration by the people in "due time" with "decorum and devotion" (Missale Romanum, Rubrics for Good Friday, #19). No other decorations should be used.
Saturday morning, after prayer, with the many volunteers you have recruited, (make sure that a task list is posted where all can see it, and that materials are at hand) begin decorating the church. Easter Vigil is the high point of Triduum, which will conclude with Evening Prayer on Easter Sunday. The Vigil begins outdoors, after sunset, with an Easter fire. The candles held by the assembly will be lit from the paschal candle, which is first lit from the Easter fire. By candlelight, people enter to hear the word of God.
The primary symbol of Easter is Baptism. The font should be accented but not overshadowed by decor. Banners made of white fabric may be suspended above the font; place groupings of plants and candles nearby but not in the path of the procession of those to be baptized. Groupings of plants, fresh flowers, and candles throughout the church emphasize the glory of the Resurrection. Easter lilies are often used; tulips also speak of spring and later can be planted in parish gardens. Group smaller plants in large, shallow baskets for a bigger effect. Gold and silver fabrics and ribbons woven among the plants or covering candle stands will echo glory. Place fresh arrangements at the sites of your dedication candles; a wreath of flowers may encircle the base of the paschal candle.
When those entering the church are welcomed by a splendid environment-fresh flowers in the narthex, or streamers of white and gold at the entrance-they are primed for the wonders God reveals in scripture and ritual this night. Christ is risen! So also may we.
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