Prayers and fellowship filled Long Island's churches as the faithful celebrated Christmas yesterday.
The Christian holy day rang with messages of love and religious inspiration as some reflected on those less fortunate than themselves and others sought out community.
Still for others, attending church was an opportunity to step away from the materialism of shopping and Santa and embrace the tenets of their faith.
Worshippers at the Holy Trinity Orthodox Christian Church in East Meadow heard a warm "Merry Christmas" as they closed the door on a cold, cloudy morning behind them. The white smoke of frankincense rose into air vibrating with pealing voices that sang of blessings.
Ancient rituals merged with a more modern world in the Rev. Martin Kraus' sermon, in which he asked people to recall the film "A Christmas Story," about a boy who wanted, above all, a Red Ryder air rifle.
"What do you want and what are you going to ask God for?" Kraus asked.
At Christmastime, some think about what kind of presents they may get, while others will pray for healing, loved ones, or doing well at work or school, he said.
"Today, we can rejoice because a very special prayer has been answered by God on this very day," Kraus said. "No, sorry you didn't win the lottery. No, you did not get that Lexus with the large ribbon on the roof. We got something better."
As the sky cleared, the warm glow of sunlight through stained glass cast the communion procession in a warm glow.
At brunch in the church basement afterward, Carol Stoddard, 68, a social worker from Merrick, said Christmas was "a wonderful time to see everyone I don't see in the year and meeting new friends."
She said she prays for an end to world conflicts but knows it will take more than prayer.
Unlike many Orthodox churches that hold services in Greek or Russian or other languages, the Holy Trinity Orthodox church liturgies are in English and on Christmas attracted natives of Ukraine, Romania, India, Brooklyn and other places.
For Merwin Varughese, 30, a radiation therapist from Garden City Park, coming to church was about finding peace in the presence of something higher than oneself and recognizing that Christmas is about Jesus Christ.
"[He's] the whole reason why this holiday exists," Varughese said.
-- Ted Phillips
At the Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Roman Catholic Church in Wyandanch, the priest preached a Christmas homily about loving and forgiving each other -- and about celebrating the gift of life.
"This is the day to put down our anger, to watch our tongues, to realize that God's gift to us is what he wants us to give one another -- which is compassion, which is love, which is caring," the Rev. Bob Lubrano said.
He said "the test of our faith" is for people to live according to the values they believe in.
Lubrano told the congregation a story about an encounter his late father had at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center in 2012 with an Iraq War veteran, who had lost both of her arms and one leg overseas.
Lubrano's father, then 90, cried and expressed his disagreement with the war. The woman interjected, saying she volunteered. But she said people don't think about the Iraqis who died.
Emmanuel Nwosu of Lindenhurst, who came to the service with his wife Jennifer and their four children, said he prayed for his family, including those in Nigeria.
Nwosu said Lubrano's message of love and forgiveness touched him. He said it made him think of reconciling with family members when there are disagreements.
West Babylon resident Reggie LaRochester, 79, a retired New York City homicide detective and Korean War veteran, asked the congregation to pray for "our marginalized veterans."
LaRochester said many veterans, some suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, don't get the help they need when they return from combat.
He said Lubrano's message, that "our purpose in life is to follow the Lord," resonated with him. LaRochester said he is always encouraged to give to others.
"People are poor. People need prayer. You can hand out food. You can hand out clothing," LaRochester said.
-- Darran Simon
Bob Clements, 75, of Riverhead walked in to St. Hugh of Lincoln Roman Catholic Church in Huntington Station and was disappointed he missed the Christmas service -- but luckily, another Mass was planned a short time later.
To Clemets, going to church on Christmas Day "means everything to us." Clemets was visiting his daughter, who lives in Cold Spring Harbor, so the church is not his home parish.
He said the day to him represents happiness and peace "which is in short supply now."
"This is a special day. If we missed it, we would've missed Christmas," he said.
The Rev. Paul Dolan, who led services yesterday morning, said Christmas is not just a day, but a season.
"Christmas is a feast of hope and love and joy and that God's light is shown in darkness and we are truly children of the light," Dolan said after Mass. "This is what its about. It's not about presents."
Jim Brogan, 50, of Huntington Station, agreed.
For him, Christmas reminds Catholics "to try to be as good Christians as we can and try to keep in mind that it's not just about presents, it's about Christ's birthday."
Anna Maguire, 9, of Huntington Station, said her favorite part of Christmas is gathering with relatives and celebrating the birth of Christ. Maguire, an altar server, helped out during the Mass.
"You get to see your family," she said.
Maguire's grandmother, Ann Maria Bombardiere, 73, of Huntington Station, said it bothers her when people say "Happy Holidays."
"They take the Christ out of Christmas. . . . We wouldn't have the season if it weren't for the birth of Christ."
-- Tania Lopez