By Neva Rae Fox
In normal years, with Advent and Christmas rapidly approaching, planning for the traditional observances and events, by this time, would have been completed, publicized, and posted, with rehearsals underway.
But 2020 has proven to be far from normal.
The status of churches is different across the country. Some are open, some closed, but there are whispers about the possibility of closing again because of the encroaching second wave of the coronavirus. That makes planning for Christmas and Advent difficult, with some still not sure what direction worship and seasonal events will take.
But the Episcopal Church is undaunted and will not let isolation get in the way. From worship to pageants, Lessons and Carols to decorations, Christmas 2020 will be different in presentation, but not in sentiment and purpose. Pre-recorded services, organ music with no choir, outdoor services, and Zoom pageants are among the innovative plans.
Many are opting for a virtual rendition of the standards. The Rev. Susanna Cates, rector of All Saints Church, Scotch Plains, New Jersey, presented a scenario typical for many. “This year, we’ll have a virtual pageant — we’ve traditionally done the pageant tableau-style. The older kids serve as narrators from Scripture, and after a reading, a carol is sung while costumed younger children process down the aisle of the church and take their places for a manger scene. We’ll be able to do this online with the kids at home!”
The Rt. Rev. W. Michie Klusmeyer, Bishop of West Virginia, noted, “we weren’t hit as bad” in his diocese. West Virginia churches were shut down in March but “were allowed to reopen on Pentecost with protocols.”
Now, looking ahead to Christmas, West Virginia mirrors other areas, especially the absence of singing. “Lessons and carols will be greatly affected this year,” Klusmeyer said.
Even far-flung Hawaii, Guam, and Micronesia were not spared coronavirus or the effects of the pandemic. “As Easter was hard, I think Christmas will be harder,” said the Rt. Rev. Robert L. Fitzpatrick, Bishop of Hawaii. “There are many who only come on Christmas. Decorations have to be different. Services will be different.”
Two Hawaiian congregations are trying drive-in lessons and carols, the bishop said, and others are the diocese is talking about how to do virtual children’s pageants.
But, Fitzpatrick asked, “How do you have Christmas without singing?”
Stewart Campbell, who provides online video services for Trinity Cathedral, Reno, Nevada, assured that the usual number holiday services — albeit livestreamed — will go on. “We will be doing one on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, News Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.”
In Houston, the Church of St. John the Divine plans to canvass the congregation for their preferences. Director of Communications Andrea Meiers explained, “We are still trying to figure out what to do. Our tentative plan includes 2-3 outdoor services with social distancing. That being said, we just sent out a parish survey to take the temperature of what our parishioners feel is safe and desirable.”
Decorations, both inside and outside church, require a new design.
Typical of the scaling back for 2020, Altar Guild member Katrina Soto of St. Clement’s by the Sea in San Clemente, California, noted, “We will probably have a few potted poinsettias (fewer than usual)” along with the Advent Wreath.
Sally Eyman Price of St. Thomas Church, Newark, Delaware, said the church will be doing “much more outside decorating. Lots of lighting. We want to remind people we’re still here!” Similarly, a festive light show on the bell tower to illuminate the sky was promised at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Honolulu.
Outreach is also an important component of Advent and Christmas celebrations, and many expect a significant increase in need.
Fitzpatrick pointed out that the visitor/travel industry is the major employer in the islands, and without visitors, there is widespread unemployment. “No one is traveling here. The economy is greatly affected.”
As a result, the need for outreach has skyrocketed. Fitzpatrick said diocesan emergency funds are going to help keep food banks open. “The story of the Incarnation is about God’s love for us. We get to carry that through by caring for others.”
Klusmeyer agrees. “I have already seen the increase in outreach needs in the community. I anticipate greater need at Christmas.”
Innovative ideas are being discussed on social media, such as an Amazon gift registry for an Angel Tree.
Cates summarized the feelings of many for Christmas 2020. “I want our church to be very intentional about focusing on the humility and danger of Christ’s birth — his family’s peril, their status as oppressed and downtrodden in a hostile land, the absolute powerlessness that God takes on to be with us. While we want to include the bells and whistles of Christmas joy, we also want to acknowledge the pain and loss that so many people will feel very keenly this year, as in no other.”