When I was a child, the Christmas Eve cantata and candlelight service at my church was solemn and lovely. The choir sang mostly Christmas songs, sometimes a dramatic performance or some narration accompanied them, and the climax occurred at the very end: each believer lit a candle, walked to the altar, and placed the candle in a heavy container full of sand so that the candle could stand on its own. At the end of the service, everyone stood in silence watching all those candles burn together, around the Christ candle. It was moving; it was simple; it was powerful.
At the church my husband and I attended after that, there was no cantata per se: just an enormous, intense, full-pageant-scale Christmas drama. And at the church we attended after that, the emphasis was on an interactive Christmas Eve service: one year believers were encouraged to get up, write their Christmas prayers on a paper and leave them at the foot of a cross, another year we walked through stations representing the Christmas story, and another year the pews were replaced with small tables and chairs for a coffee shop atmosphere where attendees could talk and participate in various projects together (and yes, the introvert in me hated that).
At my current church, the Christmas Eve service (which starts at 10 pm) is a combination of all my favorite things. It’s mostly a cantata, with emphasis on music and narration: the choir puts together a program of unique songs and performs them with the help of a small brass, wind, and string ensemble. The congregation gets to sing all the familiar Christmas carols. At the end, we light candles and sing Silent Night together. We always leave feeling uplifted.
Every church handles Christmas just a bit differently. Some services are solemn, some are kid-centric, some are simple, some are elaborate. (And some churches offer an all-of-the-above approach: as of writing, my church offers three separate Christmas Eve services, a Blue Christmas service, and a kids’ Christmas musical). As a result, they’re going to appeal (or not) to different people in different ways. I’ve marveled at the scenes from midnight masses that I’ve watched on television; my mother lives for kids’ performances and Christmas events. Extroverts and people who learn through doing would have loved the Christmas services at my previous church; introverts wanted to flee for the hills. For my part, I like candlelight and carols and music, so my current church’s offering works for me.
But it’s also okay to change it up a bit.
Many people want to stay at their home churches for the Christmas Eve service for a multitude of reasons: they have friends and family they want to see, they’re involved in the service, they’re working, or they just happen to enjoy it. That’s great! But if your church’s Christmas service isn’t quite your cup of tea, if your church doesn’t happen to have a service, or if you’re just curious and want to try something new, you can feel free to head elsewhere this holiday season.
More than any other time of year, churches are set to welcome guests at Christmas; there will certainly be room for you wherever you decide to go. For those who may have lost loved ones or who are facing difficult circumstances but who don’t necessarily want to go the “Blue Christmas” route that many churches offer, a change of pace can help. Some churches celebrate Christmas early, and so believers who want to celebrate on Christmas Eve have to find another option. Teaching your family about other churches or even other denominations can be fun. And seeing the variance of how believers celebrate the birth of Christ is an uplifting and wonderful thing.
I know that most people like to stick with their home church for Christmas. I don’t blame them. And if your church is particularly small or has been through a rough patch, then I’d recommend sticking with it: many hands make light work, and sometimes the wounds and hurts of a long struggle are best healed when the congregation can come together over a common purpose and remember what it’s really all about. But if for practical or spiritual reasons this year you simply feel like trying something new, there’s nothing wrong with it and it’s not a sign you’re dissatisfied with your church.
The variety of ways we have to worship and celebrate Christ as believers is a wonderful thing, and Christmas is one of many ways that we can experience it in full.