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F.C. Houses of Worship Take Varied Approach To Seasonal Celebrations

SCENES OF CHRISTMAS PAST at Columbia Baptist Church show the congregation holding candles during their annual Christmas Eve service. Senior Pastor Jim Baucom laments the loss of the in-person celebration of faith this year since, as he puts it, “you can’t replace being in a room full of people.” (Photo: Courtesy Columbia Baptist Church)

There’s been an unfortunate tendency throughout the coronavirus pandemic where religious holidays sync up with spikes in Covid-19 cases. But Christmas parishioners and Hanukkah congregants aren’t as willing to let these events be all virtual as they were in the spring, even if it’s still a hefty chunk of how they are “gathering” to end the year.

From Protestant and Catholic churches to nearby temples, a wide range of methods are being employed to make sure the spirit of the season is acknowledged and the communal sense intact.

With Hanukkah kicking off Thursday (tonight), local Jewish celebrants at Temple Rodef Shalom will have a plethora of virtual events to take part in during all eight nights of the holiday.

Rabbi Amy Schwartzman told the News-Press that the temple is offering a virtual program for families at around 4:30 p.m. such as an art project or story project, followed by virtual lighting of the menorah at 5:30 p.m. Later into the night around 8:30 p.m., Schwartzman said that adult learning opportunities about Hanukkah will also be offered, such as poetry relating to or history about the holiday.

Hanukkah isn’t considered to be as major of a Jewish holiday compared to other ones that take place earlier in the fall, per Schwartzman, so it’s normally a family-focused week. But with the high demand for virtual events — such as worship services doubling from 300 people in-person to around 600 throughout the pandemic — the rabbi said that Temple Rodef Shalom has spent more money and manpower behind the festival of lights.

ne live event congregants will get to participate in is a drive-in service at Wolf Trap’s parking lot on Saturday night. There, families can watch from various screens and listen in on shortwave radios while clergy takes the stage (six feet apart, of course) leads the service and the attendees through songs. It’s building off a tradition the temple established during their more significant autumn holidays.

“We’ve had a number of holidays since the fall where we gathered in the parking lot,” Schwartzman said. “Hundreds of cars — hundreds — have come to attend the services.”

There are three parishes that are leaning toward limited, sometimes outdoor, in-person gatherings.

The Falls Church Episcopal is looking at doing abbreviated 25 minute services where attendees can reserve a spot in advance, come masked up and stay distanced while outdoors on the church grounds.

Reverend Andy Anderson said that idea has been floated in consultation with medical professionals who work on the church’s board. They aren’t concerned, but Anderson did note some alarming statistics that he found — such as, in a group of 25 people in Northern Virginia, there’s a 30 percent chance someone has the virus; that number jumps to 60 percent in a group of 100 people.

The short gathering, according to Anderson, would involve hearing some Christmas carols as well as the Christmas Story, saying a few prayers, sharing communion and then having a soloist sing “Silent Night” before everyone goes home. F.C. Episcopal makes the final decision this weekend as to whether it will go through with that plan, but it will at least offer a drive-thru living nativity by the church’s E. Broad Street entrance on Dec. 17.

“It may be the one year where we have to bite the bullet and say no to these gatherings,” Anderson said. “We’re trying to balance out people’s spiritual needs with our call to love our neighbors and care for ourselves.”

THE CHOIR at the Falls Church Episcopal will also be missed during this advent. (Photo: Courtesy Falls Church Episcopal)

Saint James Catholic Church is holding in-person masses, as many Catholic churches have throughout the Arlington Diocese since May 31, according to Very Reverend Paul Scalia.

Thorough cleanings and mask wearing are already required by the church, but it’s also added more masses to thin out the crowds for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Typically eight masses would be spread out across the two days and have now been bumped up to 11. Along with that, the church is also streaming its mass into Saint James Catholic School’s gym, where overflow crowds will be seated in order to accommodate the demand for the services.

Father Denis Donahue said that Saint Philip’s in the greater Falls Church area will also be holding 10 masses — up from its usual six during Christmas time.

Parishioners will need to reserve spots in advance of the mass in order to visit, which can be transparently done through the church’s website that will tell prospective attendees how many people are already reserved for each service. It’s a useful tool, according to Donahue, because demand to attend mass has actually increased in recent weeks.

St. Philip’s events that are being moved outside, per Donahue, are the Christmas Story reenactments it holds on Christmas Eve. So before the English mass, it will be held in the church parking lot, and another one will be held after the Spanish mass.

Columbia Baptist has been holding small, in-person gatherings as well, as they had been throughout most of most of the summer and fall, but will opt to go virtual for the Christmas season.

The church’s annual musical that it puts on has been canceled — which Senior Pastor Jim Baucom said is usually an event that brings out large crowds. The same goes for its Christmas service, where he said he holds multiple services in a day.

As the News-Press reported during the spring, Baucom was well aware that this pandemic was not the “snow day” most others were treating it as. He knew it would likely have a year-long course, and that’s why his team began planning for how to do Christmas back in the summer. Still, having to cancel the in-person congregation for Christmas is especially painful for the pastor.

“There’s a real loss here. And it’s acutely felt that people miss each other,” Baucom said. “For me, Christmas Eve is an amazing night. Normally we’d do five services and it’s standing room only. And you just can’t replace that. When it comes to celebrating faith, you can’t replace being in a room full of people.”

The amount of monetary and food donations Columbia Baptist has received, as well as its growing virtual ministry, has been a bright spot for the church though. But even then, Baucom worries it will be hard to get people back in the door once normal does return.

Dulin United Methodist Church is keeping with its own commitment to virtual celebrations by doing an encore of how it celebrated Easter — having families send in photos of themselves from their Thanksgiving or early Christmas celebrations so Pastor Dave Kirkland can look at the “crowd” while he leads his sermon.

Kirkland said the Methodist church has some onerous restrictions about gatherings that he didn’t want to ignore, and those restrictions resulted in the church canceling its own living nativity scene that’s usually held on its grounds. The same goes for the Christmas play put on by Sunday School students.

Even with those events being negated, Dulin is holding a virtual choir and orchestra concert titled “Celebrate the Season” where kids send in their recordings and the church puts it together to be played on Sunday at 4 p.m. online at dulinchurch.org.

Dulin has also been able to keep up its angel tree, where parishioners buy gifts for a designated organization in a wedding registry-style. This year, they’re sending gifts to those being helped out by Falls Church nonprofit, Homestretch.

Kirkland, like everyone else, mourns the lack of community this year, but is trying to remain optimistic.

“We’ve done our best to adjust, and we’re trying to make the most out of what we’re going through right now,” Kirkland said.