Angels in America (and Utah) are falling out of fashion, not favor
Holiday trend • The winged messengers are falling out of fashion — though not out of favor.
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Angels are more than bit players in the biblical script of mother, father and newborn son that Christians revisit every December.

An angel tells Mary she is going to have a child, the son of God. An angel assures Mary's fiancé that her pregnancy was divinely ordained. An angel leads shepherds to the babe-cradling manger, and a choir of angels heralds his birth.

So if these heavenly creatures are all over the Christmas story, why aren't they all over the stores?

Angel ornaments and tree-toppers seem to have fallen out of fashion, replaced by glass icicles, snowflakes, stars, toys, globes, ceramic fruit, bronze creatures, chipmunks, sports teams and "Pierre and Marguerite Goose" couples — to name a few.

Out of 90 or so ornament designs, for example, Crate & Barrel has only two angels. Ditto for Modern Display. Pottery Barn has none. And so on.

What happened to the seemingly ubiquitous interest in angels that once swept the nation — and Utah? Did Americans stop believing in those elusive visitors from the other side? Do modern believers want to avoid too much association with mysticism?

Whatever the reasons, disbelief isn't one of them.

A December 2011 Associated Press poll found that "77 percent of adults believe these ethereal beings are real … [including] 88 percent of Christians, 95 percent of evangelical Christians and 94 percent of those who attend weekly religious services of any sort."

Even most non-Christians and nonreligious types claimed belief in angels.

Back in the 1990s, the Utah-filmed "Touched by an Angel" was one of TV's top-rated shows, Where Angels Walk: True Stories of Heavenly Visitors was a New York Times best-seller and stores selling nothing but angels popped up across the country — including Guardian Angels in Trolley Square. A bimonthly magazine, Angel Times, attracted thousands.

That all came to an end: "Touched" ended in 2003, Angel Times folded and Guardian Angels closed its doors.

"The angel craze of earlier years might have dwindled because of the events since the new millennium," says S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate, managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief, "not least of which were the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001."

These creatures "don't quite have the theological heft to place our deeper fears and desires on them," writes Rodriguez-Plate in an email from Clinton, N.Y., where he teaches at Hamilton College. "Or at least the way that angels were appropriated in pop culture, as sticky sweet nice creatures."

Ultimately, though, it is more about fad than faith.

"We sell spirituality," Rodriguez-Plate says. "When religious-oriented themes become objects of consumption in contemporary culture … we end up with trends and the whims of the market."

Mormon artist Brian Kershisnik agrees.

"Decorating with angels will always come and go, so it will be back," Kershisnik says. "I don't know that we are doing any damage to the relationship between angels and people by not having more of them on our trees."

Angels — or "witnesses," as he calls them — have been prominent in the Utah artist's sacred works in the past few years, most notably his "Nativity" and "Descent From the Cross." In both cases, the top half of the horizontal canvas is covered with angels, each carrying its own vivid expression.

The first time Kershisnik included an angel was, he says, "because I needed something in the upper right-hand corner of the piece, so I needed somebody who wasn't attached to the ground."

It was a practical decision that morphed into a deeper religious use.

He began to include angels in his creations. "It felt accurate and right," he says.

More than 150 angels crowd his "Nativity" painting, trying to get a peek at the new baby. In "Descent," they look on in horror and grief as Jesus Christ's lifeless body is handed down to the apostles.

Both images reflect the artist's own view, he says, that "our proceedings are being witnessed in some otherworldly way. … I suspect that people are so moved by the idea of angels because of their actual experiences."

These heavenly beings are largely mysterious, hidden under layers of tradition and folklore.

They don't appear all that often in the Bible, and mostly to announce momentous occasions, explains the Rev. Jeffrey Silliman, who recently retired as pastor of Utah's Cottonwood Presbyterian Church.

Indeed, many Americans reject stories about a virgin birth, angels and stars-as-compasses as "superstitions that the ancients believed," Silliman says. "Now something's only believable if you can note it with your five senses."

The minister says that some Christians — even some clergy — question the Bible's miracle stories.

When he was a seminary graduate in 1969, Silliman came to the Beehive State from California to interview for a job. One of his future colleagues asked him what he thought about angels.

They were testing his faith in the "supernatural dimension of life," Silliman says. "I said I believe in angels as messengers of God."

That must have satisfied his interviewers, the retired minister says. He got the job and pastored here for decades, holding onto his faith in the unseen.

Angels continue to have appeal in some noncommercial settings as well.

In 1994, LDS writer Richard Paul Evans commissioned an angel statue for the Salt Lake City cemetery, modeled after a similar one depicted in his best-selling novel The Christmas Box. In the book, a grieving mother visits the statue daily, crying for her deceased daughter.

Scores of parents who have lost a child, particularly a stillborn or miscarried baby, have held December vigils at the cemetery in remembrance of their love and loss.

Now there are 117 such 4 foot-tall statues at graveyards across the country, Evans says in an email, erected by families and friends to honor their children.

Brigham Young University business professor Joseph Ogden isn't too worried about the absence of angels on yuletide trees.

"My guess is that it's less about religion," Ogden says, "and more about changing Christmas décor."

Angels, he says, will be back atop the trees or resting on branches. Sometime.

pstack@sltrib.com, Facebook.com/peggy_fletcherstack, Twitter: @religiongal