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For Long Island churches, an improvisational spirit marks Christmas Eve 2020

When Christmas Eve services were canceled, Prudence Heston,

When Christmas Eve services were canceled, Prudence Heston, elder at Mattituck Presbyterian Church, wanted to make sure members of the congregation could still celebrate the story of Christmas, so a drive-through Nativity scene was set up. Credit: Randee Daddona

Holding true to their faith and the meaning of Christmas, churches across Long Island are improvising — as much of the pandemic world is — to ensure worshippers miss none of the impact of how they traditionally celebrate the birth of Christ.

Church leaders are also intent on making sure there is room for all on Christmas Eve — despite the COVID-19 barriers.

As Prudence Heston, elder at Mattituck Presbyterian Church, said by telephone, Christmas is "one of our biggest holidays … and you don’t really want to congregate."

Yet one of the priorities, she said, is ensuring no worshipper is turned away due to a lack of space.

And Christmas Eve services are among the most popular, filling every pew. So it is improvisation and new ways of communicating electronically to the rescue. It is advisable to reserve spots as soon as possible.

Christmas Eve should be warm, just below 60; wind gusts from a brewing Friday storm could reach 65 mph, according to the weather service. A high wind warning is in effect from Thursday night into Friday morning, the weather service said.

Ever since COVID-19 arrived in force last spring, religious leaders have developed both outdoor and indoor options, allowing parishioners to worship without interruption.

So for the faithful, it is a matter of seek and ye shall find.

Churches are offering online, in-person though spread-out, or — because Long Islanders have long loved their automobiles — all sorts of services in public areas, from beachside parks to parking lots.

Any last-minute modifications may be required for Christmas Day services because of potential complications from the storm.

Christmas Eve programs at Long Beach's three Catholic churches include drive-in Masses at Town Park at Point Lookout, as well as online and in-person services, said Timothy Murphy, director of Beach Catholic Operations for the churches.

The community has grown accustomed to beachside services, Murphy said, adding that Town Park was chosen in part because "we figured no one else would be looking to use the beach in mid-December."

Starting around Easter, the churches created a number of solutions to the too-close-to-me COVID-19 problem, from having worshippers sit in alternate pews to using overflow spaces, including a gym in Long Beach.

Technicians have made possible much of this new way of observing faith and all its rituals, thanks to video and radio transmitters that allow the faithful to hear and participate at a distance.

"We’ve kind of mastered the art of outdoor services," Murphy said.

Mattituck Presbyterian Church is hosting its first walk-through "Journey to Bethlehem."

Displays include live animals in the stable, depicting the site where it is believed that Jesus Christ was born, and various costumed characters.

"It’ll be great; it’ll let everyone go through and kind of live the story," Heston said.

The Nativity ends with homemade cookies; Heston said she left the bakers free to present whatever they choose, with all offerings carefully packaged to prevent any spread of the coronavirus.

In Cold Spring Harbor: "We’ll have a video premiere of our Christmas pageant," said Rev. Gideon Pollach of St John's Episcopal Church. "It is super cute."

Christmas carols around the pond are planned — provided the weather cooperates, he said, and social media will be part of this year's festivities.

"We’ll have lots of chances to greet each other over Facebook and Zoom," he said.

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