For Jennifer Tong, getting blasted with face-numbing cold weather while standing in long lines outside shopping malls for Black Friday deals is about as appealing as a root canal.

So she and her husband, Tu, and their two young sons skipped the day-after Thanksgiving retail hustle and bustle. Instead, they attended a contemplative morning worship service at Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul that emphasized the less materialistic side of the holiday season.

This year's theme for the church's fifth annual Black Friday service: "Feeding the Spirit on the Feast Day of Consumption."

"All of us get messages all the time about spend, spend, spend, or that Christmas is about what you buy," said Tong. "I feel like this is a great opportunity to have another message ... [one] that says there are bigger reasons for Christmas. There are more important things in life than standing in line to get the cheapest flat-screen TV."

The church is part of a small but growing number of congregations nationwide that have held such services in recent years as an alternative to Black Friday's traditional "worship" of consumerism. The aim of such spiritual events is to remind people about the deeper meaning of Christmas, organizers say.

Other Twin Cities churches also have held similar Black Friday events. This year, congregants at Cornerstone Church in Crystal planned to gather on Friday to bake cookies for seniors, pack bag lunches for the homeless and make fleece blankets for the needy.

At Unity, approximately 300 congregants gathered to talk about what kind of gifts they could offer to make the world a better place. They mentioned a variety of ideas -- from greeting people with a smile and friendly manner to tutoring those who can't read, to offering someone the use of a car or other vehicle to help them out in a bind.

Jim Farrell, a history professor at St. Olaf College and author of "One Nation Under Goods: Malls and the Seductions of American Shopping," addressed the Unity congregants. He said that being charitable, embodying other virtues and using "our own skills and abilities" can be wonderful gifts at Christmas.

'Sense of gratitude'

"We can be gifts to each other, not just at Christmas but every day of the year," Farrell said. "It's a time for developing our sense of gratitude. ... Jesus is the spirit of Christmas. Christmas is an embodiment of God's love."

The growing backlash against Christmastide consumerism is organized by Advent Conspiracy, a program created by three pastors in 2006.

As many as 1,500 churches have participated in the program, which doesn't aim to get rid of all gift-giving but rather emphasizes spending less and giving gifts that have deep meaning.

The Rev. Lisa Friedman, director of congregational life at Unity, helped organize the Black Friday event and said attendees come away enlivened about the upcoming holiday season.

"It's really about offering a spiritual alternative to the consumerism of the season that kind of traditionally has kicked off on Black Friday with the sales," Friedman said. "It's to invite people to reflect on the many gifts in our lives, including many of those that have not been materially made and that you're not going to be able to find in a store or wrapped up neatly in a bow."

"People just find that it's a peaceful kind of grounding coming off a day of thanksgiving and gratitude and entering into the holiday season," she said. "It grounds them to what's really important."

Rose French • 612-673-4352