One of Aiken's most prominent Christmas traditions is a work in progress this weekend, with plans coming together for Millbrook Baptist Church's annual offering of music, drama and ministry.

The Living Christmas Trees program, set this year for Dec. 7 and 8, reaches back to 1978. It was dormant from 2012 to 2017 but returned a year ago. This year's theme is "Christmas Down Memory Lane," and the Rev. Bill Howard, the congregation's worship pastor, is helping lead the charge.

The troops include about 120 singers and an orchestra with more than 50 musicians. Actors are also part of the mix.

"Putting something together like this, there's probably close to 350-400 people involved," said Howard, adding that plans are for 1,700 audience members per presentation.

Dozens of other volunteers focus on such areas as carpentry, metalwork, decorations, sound, greenery and lighting.

"Everything we hear from people is that it's a blessing," said Diane Atkinson,  the congregation's worship assistant. "Even the people that are in it are just blessed by being in it; and if there's one person that comes to Christ for it, it makes everything worth it."

Four-legged performers are also part of the mix. Back on board this year is Eudora Farms, in Salley, which provided a variety of animals for the 2018 performances, and allowed – with the weather's cooperation – interaction with the camel, sheep, cattle and a donkey, in a petting-zoo environment during the hour before each show.

"It starts in the summertime, when you're looking at music," Atkinson said. "We try to bring in the secular section, to draw people in from the community. We've had Santa Claus. We've had Frosty. We've had different things like that, but as far as the story of the birth of Christ, there's really only so many ways you can tell that story, so we try to really stick to the biblical ways and the true story, and not add in our part of it."

Atkinson's memories include a few major challenges involving the trees. "It's been a success from day one. The main difference is the way it's constructed. I mean, the early years, it had live greenery. It had live magnolia leaves – stuff like that – and so we would do seven presentations. Usually, by presentation number three, we would have people dropping out because of allergies, because the mold would start growing on the real greenery," she said.

A decision to buy artificial greenery helped resolve that problem, and also eliminated the annual need to weave live greenery into chicken wire and then, a few days later, separate the two elements once the presentations were complete.

The problem of excessive heat from strings of old-fashioned light bulbs has also been conquered by way of LED bulbs. "We would have fans under the trees to blow air up in the trees, so people wouldn't pass out from the heat," Atkinson recalled.  

This year's presentations are scheduled for Dec. 7 (2 p.m. and 6 p.m.) and Dec. 8 (6 p.m.)

Admission is free, but tickets are required, and a waiting list has been established due to all tickets having already been distributed. Tickets, however, are sporadically returned, and can be acquired through the church office, at (803) 648-4167. Details are available at millbrook.cc/lct.

Bill Bengtson is a reporter for the Aiken Standard and North Augusta Star.