DANVILLE - Churches have a special beauty all year long. But in the Christmas season, the sanctuaries are radiant with red poinsettias, satin ribbons and soft candlelight.

Earlier this month, six local houses of worship had a chance to show off their holiday finery as part of the first Tour of Churches.

"It was just beautiful," said Ann Wagle, a member of St. James United Methodist Church who organized the tour. "It went very well for the first year. We were very pleased."

About 40 people bought tickets to tour St. James, Second Church of Christ, Ridgeview Baptist Church, First Presbyterian Church, Trinity Lutheran Church and First United Methodist Church.

Besides the visitors, about 40 more people volunteered with the project, Wagle said.

The number of people might have been a bit lower than expected, but the spirit among those visiting and participating was strong, Wagle said.

"We were very encouraged," she said, adding that people were making suggestions for next year.

She also was pleased with the way the churches worked together, noting, "There was a spirit of cooperation among the churches. We tried not to make it competitive with the decorations."

Each church had its own presentation and offered refreshments.

The foyer at Second Church of Christ, for example, had blue lights and 28 decorated Christmas trees. Many churches featured musical performances, including bell choir, Christian jazz, piano and pipe organ.

Kathy Thoma, secretary at Trinity Lutheran Church at 824 E. Main, said about 30 people came through the tour. Many were captivated with the beauty of the old building, which was erected in 1915.

Trinity's sanctuary features two trees decorated according to a church tradition that emphasizes the two great teachings of the Bible - the law and the gospel, according to a description written by Pastor Kent Tibben.

The tree on the east side of the cancel is decorated with 33 apples as a reminder of the original sin. The tree on the west side is decorated with 33 white roses, representing purity and holiness. The number 33 stands for each year of Jesus' life on earth.

Three white satin ribbons flow over the branches to remind people of the glory of God that came to earth veiled beneath the flesh and blood of Christ on Christmas night. Each tree is topped with five-point stars to symbolize the five wounds that Jesus suffered on the cross.

As for next year, Thoma said, "If they asked us, we'd do it again."

Wagle said the organizers will kick around other ideas for next year, such as offering the tours on both Saturday and Sunday afternoons or possibly morning and afternoon tours. They'll address issues such as whether churches should be allowed to participate every year or if there should be a limit on the number of churches involved.

Providing transportation among the churches is an option, as well.

"This year, we didn't get started until mid- to late-September," Wagle said. "We wanted to get it off the ground and keep it simple that first year."

Wagle got the idea from the tours of homes, thinking it would be interesting to do the same for churches.

She also pointed out that people are welcomed at the churches any day - not just Christmas.

"This is not just a Christmas event," she said. "We want to open our doors and our hearts to people anytime."

Proceeds from this year's tour will benefit Aunt Martha's Health Center, a private not-for-profit provider of health services without regard to patients' incomes or insurance status. Aunt Martha's was formerly known as Vermilion Area Community Health Center.

TO HELP

To become involved with next year's Tour of Churches, contact Ann Wagle through St. James United Methodist Church at 442-1504. A group will meet after the first of the year to discuss ideas for next year.

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