Police officers will be directing traffic at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis on Thursday, where about 14,000 people will pack 10 back-to-back Christmas Eve services starting at 2 p.m.
The faithful at Westwood Community Church in Excelsior have reserved seats online at one of the seven services Thursday expected to draw about 9,000 people. Westwood, along with churches such as Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, even added “Early Christmas Eve” services a day or two before the big rush.
For most Minnesotans, Dec. 24 — not Dec. 25 — has become the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It draws the biggest crowds of the year for many churches big and small, in a trend that has reached the point where “Christmas Eve” services now start as early as 10 a.m.
Christmas Day services have dwindled to one or none for most churches, although some larger Catholic churches have a few more.
“We believe in offering options to people,” said Tim Westermeyer, pastor at St. Philip the Deacon Church in Plymouth, which tries to cater to a mix of families with children, middle-age adults and seniors. “We have seven services. The one at 11 o’clock is for young families and kids, and tends to be shorter. Most of the others — starting at 2 p.m. — people are coming to church as it’s getting dark. There’s a beauty and a peace and a reflectiveness in that worship.”
The Dec. 24 boom reflects a cultural shift over the decades. Minnesota families, increasingly mobile and blended, want convenience, and that means kid-friendly services and schedules that don’t interrupt their other holiday plans.
Jammies and toys
“Christmas Day is a day when people want to keep on their jammies, the kids want to play with their toys, and it’s a time to hunker down,” said the Rev. Stephen Cornils of Mount Olivet. “Conveniences are important.”
It’s been a hectic week for churches, as choirs practice Christmas hymns, children perform Nativity plays, ministers pen upbeat sermons, and church staff rearrange poinsettias at the altar and lug out boxes of candles.
And it’s nearly all done with an eye toward Dec. 24.
For some Protestant churches, it’s nothing new to focus solely on Christmas Eve. For others, it’s been a gradual drift from Christmas Day. That’s particularly true for Catholics, who historically were required to attend mass on Christmas Day because it was a “holy day of obligation.” Lutheran doctrine didn’t demand attendance, and churches had discretion on when to offer services. Christmas Day was important for some, not others.
The Rev. Stan Mader, pastor at St. Ambrose of Woodbury Catholic Community, recalls when the tide shifted for his first Catholic parish about 20 years ago. The Christmas Eve mass was packed with hundreds of people, he said, and extra chairs needed to be brought in. The Christmas Day mass “might have 30 or 40 people.”
“More than anything, the time of the service is dictated by how many people come,” Mader said.
A variety of services
Jay Beech, executive director of the Center for Worship and Music Studies in Minneapolis, said church members no longer feel a sense of obligation to attend religious services. So churches needed to respond.
That includes holding a variety of Christmas Eve services, appealing to diverse audiences, said Bob Hulteen, communications director for the Minneapolis Area Lutheran Synod. Church bulletins list children’s services, services with a different musical focus, candlelight services and different readings.
Westwood Community Church, for example, offers a large choir, various groups of musicians, special lights and video accompaniment.
“It takes a lot of volunteers,” said Tim Remington, a Westwood staff director. “There are parking lot people. Ushers. Greeters. People to hand out candles. Child care workers. Three camera operators. A video director. Three sound engineers … .
“It’s a long day,” Remington said. “But when you look out there and see all those families on Christmas Eve, it’s worth it.”
Although churches are still perfecting their Christmas Eve formats, they face a bit of a challenge next year, when Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, said Cornils. Should church members be required to come to church again? Should service times be changed?
“That’s going to be trickier,” he said.