Christians continue to find images for faith journey at Rufty’s Chrismon Shop

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 12, 2014

Every Christmas for more than half a century, many churches have decorated trees with symbols from the birth and life of Jesus, instead of secular Santas and snowmen.
It’s a good bet that many of these now-familiar ornaments were inspired by the late Frances Kipps Spencer, creator of Chrismons.
Here in Rowan County, the Rufty family helped spread that tradition throughout the Southeast and, later, worldwide.
Fifty years ago, Rufty’s Garden Shop started supplying beads and materials for Spencer’s Chrismons.
Today, Rufty’s Chrismon Shop is still creating patterns, and supplying beads, so that churches, missionaries and people of faith can create images for different seasons of the Christian year.
With their own line of Christian Symbols branded ornament patterns, Melonie Rufty Beaver and others in the family have drawn from both the Old Testament and New Testament to help people express their faith.
In addition to beads and patterns, Rufty’s Chrismon Shop offers classes to help people learn to make faith-filled ornaments.
It’s more than just a craft project, Beaver said. It can be inspiring, and even therapeutic.
“It’s a social thing … a tool to study the Bible,” Beaver said.
According to the website of Ascension Lutheran Church of Danville, Va., in 1957 parishioner Spencer created a new type of ornament that was more suited to Christmas trees in church sanctuaries.
She named them Chrismons, for the words “Christ” and “monogram.” The first Chrismons were Greek letters from the name Christos.
From 1959 to 1970, Spencer created five books of patterns to help church members make their own ornaments.
As the popularity of Chrismons grew, Barbara Rufty, Melonie’s mother, met Spencer, who had started searching for beads to help churches make their own ornaments.
“Most of the beads (Spencer) used were old jewelry,” Rufty said.
“At that time, the little Indian bracelets were real popular,” Rufty said. “We had the beads for that.”
“We would see what designs she was making, and then my husband and I would go to New York and find the beads,” Rufty said.
Today, Rufty said, it’s a point of pride that their business can use the trademarked Chrismon name, because Spencer gave her permission years ago.
Spencer passed away in 1990, but the idea of making ornaments that symbolize Christian faith and teachings has grown.
Inside the showroom of Rufty’s Chrismon Shop, the walls are covered with ornaments in gold, silver and colorful beads.
Those finished ornaments are not for sale, Melonie Beaver said; “You’re not supposed to sell them pre-made.”
She said they’ve even found, and stopped, one distributor who was importing pre-made ornaments from China – an unauthorized knock-off of a copyrighted design.
That’s because the whole point of those ornaments is to make them by hand – and, in so doing, to grow in faith and understanding, Beaver said.
While Spencer’s original Chrismon books are still available, Beaver said her family’s Christian Symbols patterns are probably more familiar and easier to access for today’s craft market.
After Spencer passed away, “people were eager for new designs,” Beaver said.
Along the way, they’ve improved the process a little.
Unlike the original Chrismons, some of which used Styrofoam in the design, the Christian Symbols patterns use wire and beads and are more durable, Beaver said.
Aside from the beads and the wire, and the patterns, the biggest investment is time.
Every year, starting in February, Rufty’s Chrismon Shop offers classes on how to make the ornaments.
The participants – groups of women and men, some traveling from several states away – gather and learn how to assemble the beads and wire into angels, flowers, crowns, crosses and many other symbols.
The smaller ornaments may just take an hour or two to create. The larger, more intricate designs can take 15 hours, Beaver said.
People learn to craft the ornaments for many different reasons, Beaver said. “I’ve had some advanced students who are teachers. They take it back to their churches and teach it there.”
Others simply want to make ornaments for themselves or their families.
At 84, Barbara Rufty is still helping teach classes. She also offers feedback on her daughter’s ornament designs.
And with Melonie’s son, Addison Beaver, 25, helping them transfer new ornament designs onto the computer for publication, the Christian Symbols and Chrismons span multiple generations.
Melonie Beaver said she’s devoted thousands of hours to creating new designs, many in response to requests.
What started as a project to create shields representing some of the Apostles who followed Christ turned into the creation of one for each of the 12 disciples, including Judas Iscariot — because, Beaver said, some insisted that his role in the Gospel be represented.
“I must have done 50 hours of research” to come up with the history of the disciples and create symbols that represented them, Beaver said.
Another challenge has been to represent different faith traditions within Christianity.
“Every denomination comes here,” Beaver said, including Catholic and Protestant Christians. Jewish customers have purchased some of the Old Testament ornaments, she said.
Sometimes, Beaver said, she’s had to defend the practice of making ornaments against claims that it’s not right to do so.
“We’re not worshiping the symbols,” Beaver said. “But, using our hands in making those, we use (the ornaments) to study the Bible with, to remind us of the stories of the Bible.”
The lessons and the beaded ornaments have been adapted to missions and to children’s ministry, and have been used as a therapeutic outreach as well.
Beaver said a lady whose husband had passed away passed got in touch to say that crafting the ornaments had helped her feel less alone.
She said she’s thankful to her mother for introducing the family to Chrismons, and to her father, the late Harold Rufty, for his support.
Barbara Rufty has a similar story of a customer named Doris, from Ohio, whom she’s never met face-to-face.
“Her husband passed away about the same time mine did,” Rufty said. The ornaments were a bridge that brought them together to talk about their losses.
“I’ve never seen the woman, but she’s a very close friend of mine. We share a lot of stuff together,” Rufty said.
“You get those kinds of stories, and it means more than just being in the business,” Rufty said.
Both Rufty and Beaver spoke of customers who’ve come to the local shop from overseas, either to purchase beads and materials or to take part in classes.
“We sent an order out to England today,” Beaver said.
With 49 books of Christian Symbols patterns in print, plus many more single patterns, Beaver said there’s plenty to learn.
“We have met so many wonderful, wonderful people who are doing the Chrismons for their church, and then they get into doing them for their home trees. And then they give them as gifts,” Beaver said.
Rufty’s Chrismon Shop offers classes in how to make the Christian Symbols designs several times a month, through September.
There’s also an open house at the shop on Saturday, July 19 for those who want to learn more about the Christian craft.
For Rufty, making the ornaments is “just a way I can share my love of Jesus with everybody.”
“I don’t stand on a streetcorner and say hallelujah,” Rufty said. “This is my way to share my love of God.
Beaver said that, for her, the Christian Symbols have become a way to connect with others and grow in faith.
It’s a family tradition 50 years and still growing … one bead at a time.
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.