My Christmas cards went in the mail this week. Previous essays have chronicled my long-standing project of photographing old Alabama churches during the month of December for my next year’s Christmas card. I have written about how signing and addressing each card has become a “brief meditation” on the recipient.
2016 was a challenging year for my family and me. Last year at this time Dad was already hospitalized and there was no opportunity to go on photography expeditions. But many of my friends have begun to expect my annual Christmas card and I feel a responsibility to complete the task. The process of choosing the annual design, verse, and photo has become a welcome annual ritual that I use as an escape from day to day pressures.
Since I didn’t take any church photographs in December 2015, I went back through my files to look at previous photographs of churches that I haven’t used. I kept returning to a 2007 image of Havana Methodist Church, an 1870 structure visible on Highway 69 in the small Black Belt community of Havana between Moundville and Greensboro.
The Havana church was a frequent subject of artist William Christenberry, whose long career was centered on photographs, paintings, sculptures, and assemblages inspired by the Black Belt, especially Hale County where Christenberry’s grandparents lived. Christenberry visited and photographed his humble architectural and landscape subjects year after year, photographing their decline and bringing fame to a green barn, a Sprott church, and a Palmist sign hanging upside down in the broken window of an abandoned store, among other iconic images. When I photographed the church in 2007 I visited the family plots of Christenberry’s ancestors buried in the small churchyard cemetery.
Christenberry always photographed full images of the Havana church so I decided to use a detail of the church’s handsome roof as the main image on the front of my card and put a thumbnail of the full church on the back. The church’s elegant simplicity inspired me to use a verse from Joseph Brackett’s “Simple Gifts,” a Shaker dance song, as the inside message for the card. The “Simple Gifts” tune is probably best known from composer Aaron Copland’s orchestral adaptation of it for “Appalachian Spring,” the score he first composed for a Martha Graham dance.
On the back I provided the photograph credit and the note that the photograph was inspired by Christenberry along with a memorial statement for Dad, who passed away in the spring.
Ironically, as I was leaving the post office on the day that I mailed my large batch of cards, I heard the news that William Christenberry died at age 80 on November 28. That news about one of my favorite artists and fellow University of Alabama MFAs (who received his three decades before I received mine) made a bittersweet holiday season even more so.
Even bittersweet, I still look forward to a bright and pleasant holiday season full of comfort and joy and I still have a fervent hope for a better and more restful year to come.