The Heartbreak of Christmas 2019

At Old South, Christmas Eve has become the most unwelcome and dire of bellwethers. When I began my ministry with Old South, in 2005, I heard quite a lot about the annual Christmas Eve service. The bell choir would play several pieces. The choir would sing even more pieces. The choir’s best voice would sing “O Holy Night.” There would be candlelight. There would be carols and scripture. The pastor was something of an emcee for the evening—no sermon or homily permitted, thank you very much (although I’ve found various ways over the years of inserting messages through readings and poems).

And, it used to be that people arrived an hour in advance in order to secure a seat.

Not anymore. Not by a longshot.

Between 1986 and 2018, attendance at the annual Christmas Eve service declined by 65%. This year, it took another significant dip. Where 225 – 250 people attended in the early to mid 1980s, Christmas Eve 2019 had 65 people in attendance, including all of the music makers and the several children who fell asleep almost as soon as the service started.

For those who rehearse so hard, who attend the weekly meetings of the choir and bell choirs (and especially those who participate in both), the diminishing crowd for the Christmas Eve service is particularly depressing. While the singers and ringers may appreciate that they are not entirely playing for the audience, that it is a worship service and even if only 2 or 3 are present, Christ is still in our midst, it is still painful to look out at all of the empty spaces in the sanctuary after weeks of preparation.

Over the past five or six years, as the attendance has steadily declined, the smaller numbers have generally been explained away—snow or other frozen precipitation; icy cold temperatures; or, a power outage (yes, one year, we lost power for most of Christmas Eve day, with the electricity returning a mere hour or two before the start of the service). For Christmas Eve 2019, though, the conditions were close to perfect. Not too cold, but not unseasonably warm either. Though not extensive, we had a bit of the white stuff on the ground. And, the skies were completely clear. Just about perfect.

And the lowest attendance, by a noticeable amount, ever at a Christmas Eve service.

Even for those who regularly attend worship at Old South, the numbers were alarmingly low. I was aware that there were a few people traveling, another couple of people had too many family members visiting to try to herd them all to church for a 7:00 service, and a few others don’t drive after dark, and are not especially interested in getting a ride (if we could find one).

The most obvious absences, though, were:
1. Those who are no longer with us, who have either moved away or passed away, and,
2. The CEOs (Christmas and Easter Only). They have been coming less and less to Easter. And now even less to Christmas Eve.

The second obvious absence is what feels especially dire to me, as if the very last tie to the religious significance of the holiday has evaporated.

As we arrived at the end of our Christmas Eve service this year, as the lights were dimmed and candlelight spread throughout the sanctuary, and those assembled sang “Silent Night,” I found myself close to tears, the edges of my eyes filling with excess moisture. On the one hand, the service had been a beautiful one, full of praise and wonder, with lovely and moving music and words. And, on the other, it felt as if this religious and spiritual practice that is so meaningful for me, is simply not worth the effort for most of the people who live where I live. In the midst of the wonder and awe that I feel at Christmas, this year I also felt a great deal of sadness and heartbreak at the stark decline of Christian tradition and practice.

The statistics certainly underscore the new reality we are experiencing. Maine has been especially hard-hit, with some surveys suggesting that Maine is the least religious state in the country. Somehow, though, the blatant demonstration of that new reality in the decline in the significance of one of our holiest of days is much harder to absorb, appreciate, acknowledge, and accept. Up until not all that long ago, it felt like, even though weekly worship attendance was declining, Christmas Eve still held some religious significance in the community.

Now, it is yet another indicator of how sharply the tide has turned and I can’t help but wonder where I’ll observe Christmas Eve ten or twenty years from now—just at home with my family? With a small group in someone’s living room?

For this Christmas, in the midst of the great joy, there is heartbreak. Along with the joy of new life, there is the dread of the steady decline, and eventual death. As I consider the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke yet again, I pray for the strength to walk the path that looms ahead, a path that is not the path I would choose. Yet, I’m also aware of what is at the root of this holiday, that a remarkably strange and mysterious event offered a profound sign of God’s remarkable love for people. That sign got its start in the smallness and vulnerability of a child. Perhaps there is reason to be hopeful.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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