By tonight, local churches will be decorated with manger scenes, garlands, Christmas trees and poinsettias. Extra bulletins will be printed. Additional seating will be set up.
And parishioners and congregation members, finished with Christmas shopping and gift wrapping, will enter to experience the serenity, peacefulness and tradition of the family liturgies and candlelight services offered on Christmas Eve.
“Christmas Eve is always special,” said the Rev. Judy Welles of the Unitarian Universalists of the Cumberland Valley in Boiling Springs. “People come expecting something wonderful.”
Most local churches report an increase in worshippers for the Christmas Eve services.
The Rev. Canon Mark Scheneman of St. John’s Episcopal Church in downtown Carlisle estimates that between twice and three times the number of regular worshippers attend on Christmas Eve.
On a typical Sunday, First United Methodist Church in Mechanicsburg sees about 500 people. On a typical Christmas Eve, that number doubles to 1,000, the Rev. Michael Minnix said.
St. Patrick Church in Carlisle sets up an overflow viewing room with 200 seats. It’s filled every year, the Very Rev. William C. Forrey, pastor of St. Patrick’s, said.
“Some people, this is the only time they come to church, and that’s fine. We welcome them,” Scheneman said. “Everybody’s part of the gang when they show up. Part of the family.”
“I’m hopeful that one of the things that draws people to church on Christmas is that people recognize that Christmas belongs to the church, that it’s our story,” Minnix said. “They want to hear again and be a part of that story.”
This influx that makes Christmas Eve services some of the most well attended can be attributed to out-of-town visitors, the captivating music and candlelit atmosphere of the Christmas service or the tradition of the Christmas Eve liturgies, local clergy say.
The additional worshippers also make Christmas Eve services a prime opportunity to offer outreach to those in attendance.
“Christmas is truly a time to reflect on the blessings bestowed on us, and the greatest gift is the Savior,” Forrey said. “It’s an appropriate time to gather with family and loved ones and acknowledge the source of our lives, the source of forgiveness and mercy, the source of hope that is Jesus Christ.”
St. John’s Episcopal Church designated December as “Welcome Home” month, recognizing a different group of people — service men and women, college students — each week, Scheneman said. Tonight’s service will welcome home those who are visiting Carlisle for Christmas.
In the past weeks, the church also sent letters to congregation members who have been frequently absent from services or who have experienced loss in the past year.
“Every church could do this, because there’s something about Christmas,” Scheneman said. “‘I’ll be home for Christmas,’ as the song says.”
Power of the story
Throughout the Advent season, teams within the First United Methodist Church worked to decorate the church, Minnix said. The church also hosted an Evening in Bethlehem event and scheduled a Blue Christmas service, which was cancelled due to weather, to help congregation members struggling with loss, Minnix said.
In preparation for the Christmas Eve services, the choirs and other musical groups held additional rehearsals, and he has been working on his sermon, he said.
“There is incredible power in the (Christmas) story itself,” Minnix said. “I have been listening, and I try to take the story and apply it to their life experience… and relate the Christmas story to who we are as a people and as a community of faith.”
St. Patrick Church has scheduled three masses, each featuring one of the church’s choirs. The evening will culminate in the traditional midnight mass.
“What’s special about that is Christmas Day, from the first minute of Dec. 25, we as Catholics and Christians are in prayer, thanking God the Father for the gift of the Incarnation,” Forrey said.
Pastor Phyllis A. Hunter of the Cumberland United Methodist Charge in Newburg plans to approach her sermon on Christmas Eve as she does during the rest of the year: Speaking from the center of the altar, creating a closeness among her congregation, she said.
“I would think, once again, having the down-to-earth type service … They’re made to feel like this is where they need to be,” she said. “That they would feel so comfortable that they would want to come back, and if they don’t, that they would pick something they could take with them for the rest of their lives.”
That is the hope of most churches, and some have had visitors on Christmas Eve who return to or continue to attend church.
“Every year there are people that come home again,” Forrey said. “I think the crib invites us to acknowledge the love of God shown to us in Jesus Christ. Consequently, Christmas becomes a time to reflect on the true meaning of our spiritual identity.”
“You always hope for that,” Scheneman said. “You hope this is a season that will bring inclusion and welcome, warmth and hospitality. All these things are hallmarks of the Christmas season.”