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Christmas Eve services are different. Even Santa and a Garth Brooks song will make appearances.
By EILEEN SCHULTE
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 23, 2000
Red-and-white poinsettias line the sidewalks; wreaths and ribbons hang on the massive doors. Inside the silent, empty churches, fresh candles stand tall in holders at the end of pews, ready to be lit.
Christmas Eve is a day away. It is the day for which Pinellas County churches have been meticulously planning.
Since the beginning of December, they've held live, drive-through nativity scenes, holiday plays, choral performances, carillon concerts and children's pageants.
They've sponsored holiday lunches, shows and exhibits.
All has been in preparation for Christmas Eve, when many pastors, priests and ministers have added extra services.
Pastor Tae Cheong of Korean Presbyterian Church in Pinellas Park did not add a second service. But he came up with a novel way of attracting attention to the candlelit service he has scheduled for Sunday evening. He made a deal with the congregation: "If you bring the whole family -- people who normally don't come to services -- I'll give you tickets to a Chinese buffet," he said. "I made a deal with a restaurant."
To prepare his regular church members who came to services last Sunday, Cheong preached about the turmoil of shopping and partying that marks the Christmas season.
"We spend a lot of money for what? Ourselves?" he said. "It has no relationship with Christ."
Bernie Blankenship, pastor of outreach and worship at First Christian Church in Clearwater, said his congregation has been getting into the spirit of the season by attending a performance by the First Christian Choir and the Suncoast Symphony Orchestra called That's the Good News, directed by J.P. Carney, last Sunday.
"We had a pretty packed house," Blankenship said.
Many church members also attended a play, Baby's First Christmas. The church entered two floats in the Clearwater Holiday Parade this year, one based on the play, another on a manger scene.
Blankenship is pleased that Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday this year. "It's a nice thing," he said. People aren't working and won't have to rush to the 6 p.m. candlelight service.
Normally, attendance for services at First Christian is 400 to 450 members, but on Christmas Eve, that number swells to about 1,000. To accommodate the Christmas crowd and make them comfortable, the congregation has decided to make small sacrifices.
"We try to encourage our regulars to stand in the aisles," Blankenship said. "A lot of folks come once or twice a year. We try to give them the good seats. They (the regulars) even park farther away. It's all in the Christmas spirit."
Blankenship also will limit the service to precisely one hour.
"We're very careful about their time commitment," he said. "A lot people have reservations at restaurants around town."
During that hour he will not put on a show. He explained that "baby boomers are looking for spiritual meaning. We're trying to give them an emotional connection to God. They aren't coming to seek entertainment."
But the children who will attend the 6:30 p.m. family service at First Presbyterian Church of Dunedin are, and Pastor Victoria ByRoade will make sure they get it -- and a candy cane.
During the service, she will get up and say she wants to tell them about the true meaning of Christmas. On cue, Santa will burst through the doors and say, "I know a little bit about giving."
He will take over the service, gather the children around him on the floor, sit in a rocking chair and read a story.
"Santa is coming to tell us he's not the meaning of Christmas," ByRoade said. "This is something new. Santa usually doesn't come to services."
The church quietly added another feature this year. A special "mourning" service was held to honor members of the congregation who have died and to provide emotional support to those they left behind.
"We have a lot of older people, and have had several deaths in the past year," ByRoade said. "The holidays are often very difficult for them. We were looking to reach out to those people. Only 36 came, but those 36 are people who really needed to be here."
Six candles were placed on the communion table to remember parents, children, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, and one for "those whom we discovered through the eyes of love -- wives, husbands, lovers," ByRoade said.
They were lit one by one. But one was left unlit for those who will soon lose someone they love and will find themselves in mourning.
Pastor Steve King of Palm Harbor United Methodist Church isn't going to use Santa to get a Christmas message across during his service; he's going to use the power of a country music star.
"Garth Brooks will help give the sermon," King said.
During the service, Brooks' song Belleau Wood will fill the air, accompanied by a video.
"It's about a famous World War I battle," King said.
Oh, the snowflakes fell in silence,
Over Belleau Wood that night,
For a Christmas truce had been declared
By both sides of the fight
The song goes on to describe how German and American soldiers sang Silent Night in their trenches before the fighting erupted again.
"We were going to sing it ourselves," said King. "But Garth Brooks does it better."
If a large crowd attends, King is ready. His "overflow room" can hold 120.