Christmas has been formally celebrated on Dec. 25 since 336 AD. And on Saturday, new traditions dating to 2020 returned to church and again reconfigured how the faithful worship.
Masks covered churchgoers’ faces, greetings of peace avoided the personal touch, and some Christians decided to forgo in-church worship altogether in favor of a livestream from home.
Plans for services were yet again disrupted, this year by an infection surge caused by the coronavirus’ omicron variant.
Brian McMillan, lead pastor at the Protestant CenterPoint Church, had to cancel one of his services, in Bay Shore, due to a coronavirus outbreak among congregants and musicians, he said.
"It was so many people," he said, so cancellation was "smart to do."
But still, services were held at five locations — in Long Beach, Kings Park, Stony Brook and Holbrook, with four services in Massapequa, in the run-up to Christmas.
McMillan pointed to the long journey of the Magi, the three wise men, kings from the east, who saw the star of Bethlehem and decided to go give Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
"The Magi couldn’t have been further in distance and in culture than Jesus, yet God brought them to him. This shows us that Jesus is for everyone. And our response should be like the Magi, they were willing to follow God’s signs to Jesus and worship him," McMillan said.
His services drew more than 1,500 in person — half of 2019 but double 2020, he estimated. About 1,000 people participated via the livestream.
Inside the Ascension Lutheran Church in Franklin Square, illuminated by flickering candlelight and the lights on the Christmas tree, worshippers sang three verses of "Silent Night" at the end of the one-hour service on Christmas Eve, accompanied by piano and harp.
"It was quite gorgeous and fitting," said Rev. John Jurik, interim pastor at Ascension and a coverage pastor at Lutheran Church of Our Saviour in Mineola.
Last Christmas saw churches livestreaming, and pastors this year said they were glad to have in-person services return, despite the attendance being lower than in years past.
"It was joyous as well as muted," said Jurik, who led the service at Ascension attended by three dozen people, about half of pre-pandemic levels.
The singing of carols and exchanging of greetings of peace had been altered by the virus mitigation rules, he said.
"Pre-pandemic, we were going through the pews, hugging one another, shaking hands, maybe even a kiss on the cheek," Jurik said. "All of that can't happen now, so we simply say the words and maybe we turn around and we wave to one another."
That still was markedly better than last year, when services were virtual only.
"There is no replacement for being together in one place," Jurik said. "We are so happy we could get together."
The Rev. Stephen Na of Edge City Church was excited to see 200 people who joined the Christmas Eve service in Mineola. He had expected the attendance to be higher, but the latest surge of new COVID-19 cases made it hard to predict.
"We weren't really sure what to expect," Na said Saturday. "But they did show up and I was pleased to see that at least the whole church came together to remember Jesus’ coming, so that was a big win."
In Hempstead, about 20 worshippers attended the Christmas Day service at the Bethlehem of Judea Church. What made it special for Lynnwood E. Deans, the church’s senior pastor, was being present, he said.
"We're able to know and recognize one another and appreciate the presence of one another," said Deans, shortly after finishing the one-hour service Saturday morning.
Deans, whose church held an in-person service last Christmas, said he saw less anxiety this year as people adjusted to the reality of living through a pandemic soon to enter its third year.
"That was a different level of anxiety last year that is kind of subsiding this year," he said. "People are getting a little overwhelmed and a little tired of it. But I think right now the anxiety level has gone down a bit."
Steven Mangum, senior pastor at The House of Judah, is expecting close to 100 people at the service in West Sayville Sunday morning and more viewers online. In-person services at his church resumed only in September.
An associate pastor will minister the service Sunday, but Mangum said the message is about appreciation: "The general message to everyone that we communicate with in the season of Christmas is: enjoy your family, enjoy your friends, be healthy and safe."