On the Eve

On the Eve

Two and a half billion Christians around the world will soon celebrate the birth of the man they call their Savior, and many of them will do so this Friday, Christmas Eve. New Haven’s churches are a microcosm of that Christian population, with services embracing many different traditions, all of them welcoming guests to celebrate with them. Safety protocols are keeping many churches online as this second pandemic winter begins, but some will open their actual doors for Christmas Eve services.

At Beulah Heights First Pentecostal Church on Orchard Street, Pastor Harold Brooks says church members usually celebrate Christmas Eve at home with their families, but this year called for something special. The church’s traditional children’s pageant of the nativity on the Sunday before Christmas couldn’t be staged safely, so instead, Beulah Heights will hold a one-hour service of carols and readings Friday at 7 p.m., “a nice, quiet, intimate worship experience,” Brooks says. “We felt this year with all we’ve been through in the last year and a half with COVID, that this would be a good time for us to gather together to be thankful for the season and what we’ve been able to do in moving forward.”

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At other local churches, a Christmas Eve service is an age-old tradition. Founded in 1854, Christ Church at Broadway and Elm Street, one of several Episcopal churches in New Haven, will celebrate with two in-person services on Christmas Eve, says Father Stephen Holton. The first, at 4:30, is geared toward families with children, who will help put together the crèche—a collection of figures commemorating the birth of Christ—as the Christmas story is told and sing favorite carols. A later service, starting at 10 p.m., will be the traditional “a-little-bit-earlier-than-midnight mass,” including a procession to the crèche, holy communion and the singing of the carol “Silent Night” by candlelight. Christ Church also holds a Christmas Day service at 11 a.m.

Josh Williams, lead pastor at Elm City Vineyard, says as much as a quarter of his congregation of about 150 people are newcomers to church altogether. “That breeds a certain kind of culture,” he says, in which church history and traditions aren’t assumed to be already understood. Taking the time to ask questions and give explanations works for everyone, Williams says. “All of us are trying to grow in what it really means to inhabit our faith and take it on for ourselves… We’re a church of learners together.” Elm City Vineyard’s Christmas Eve service, to be held at 6 p.m. at First & Summerfield United Methodist Church at the corner of College and Elm Streets, will be “very informal,” including songs, scripture and candlelight.

While traditions and beliefs vary from church to church, so does the language of the message. In New Haven, worship is a multilingual affair, with services offered in languages including Chinese, French, Greek, Korean, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian. At Our Lady of Guadalupe—a Catholic parish at 397 Ferry Street in Fair Haven recently formed by the merging of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Rose of Lima—separate weekly services are held in English and in Spanish. A Christmas English Mass will be celebrated at 4 p.m. Friday, followed by Misa de Navidad en Español at 7 p.m. On Christmas morning at 10 a.m., both branches of the parish will meet for a bilingual Christmas Day mass expected to draw hundreds.

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Those who celebrate a secular Christmas don’t have to enter a church at all to be included in the spirit of Christmas Eve. Center Church on the Green will host a 5 p.m. carol sing around the colorfully lighted tree on the New Haven Green. Children are invited to dress up as figures from the Christmas story: “wise people, kings and queens, shepherds, angels, Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, cows, sheep, goats, etc.” If you do want the full experience, the carol sing will be preceded a 4 p.m. service of lessons and carols in the Center Church sanctuary at 250 Temple Street.

Worshiping in person isn’t comfortable for everyone, of course. “Now, with Omicron, and not knowing the severity or the effectiveness of vaccines… people are more cautious,” says Reverend Steven Cousin, Jr. of Bethel AME Church on Goffe Street. His congregation has been meeting in person on Sunday mornings, and its sanctuary is decorated with brilliant red poinsettias and a crèche, but its traditional Christmas pageant, a staging of Langston Hughes’s Black Nativity, was canceled this year. Like many local churches, Bethel’s Christmas Eve service will be online.

Looking ahead to 2022, Cousin says, “Hopefully we’re in a better situation in the world then.” To that, may we all say, Amen.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image features the doors of First Baptist Church.

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