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Smithtown church welcomes Christmas season

Worshipers participate in a Christmas service at the

Worshipers participate in a Christmas service at the Smithtown Landing United Methodist Church in Smithtown. (Dec. 2, 2012) Credit: Ed Betz

Inside the tiny white Smithtown church with the tiny white picket fence, more than 60 people gathered Sunday afternoon to continue a historic tradition: welcoming the Christmas season with a holiday service.

Organized in 1795 and built in 1834, Smithtown Landing Methodist Church is typically closed during the year. Located on Landing Avenue at Oakside Road and affectionately known as "the little church in the woods," the church opens for only two services each year, one in December and another in the spring.

Joan Vitale, president and treasurer of The Landing Ladies Auxiliary, said the church closed in 1957 after the number of parishioners dwindled.

"They decided to close and only have an annual service . . . so they could be considered an active church," said Vitale, 80, of Smithtown.

The church property is owned by Smithtown United Methodist Church, said the Rev. Huibing He, who led the service.

Standing at a podium flanked by poinsettias, with a Christmas tree topped by a glowing angel nearby, He offered words of encouragement after superstorm Sandy.

"We know that the natural disaster destroyed many families and many children lost their daily life . . . and many parents are really anxious about how can they bring recovery and healing to their children," she said. "We anticipate a coming of Christ to bring this hope and bring recovery and bring strength."

In keeping with the season of Advent, which started Sunday, organist Deanna Muro accompanied attendees who sang traditional Christmas songs such as "O Come, All Ye Faithful," "Joy to the World" and "We Three Kings."

"You actually have to pump with your feet" to circulate air throughout the organ, she said before the service, estimating the organ to be about 100 years old. "It is very good exercise."

The history also extends outside, where the names of the church's founding members are among the headstones at a neighboring cemetery.

Originally, the church had only a center aisle, according to church records. Men would seat themselves on the left and women on the right. At Sunday's gathering, generations of men, women and children sat next to each other on creaky wooden pews.

"I like that it's nice and cozy," said Florence Bowers, 84, of Smithtown, who taught Sunday school there in the late 1940s. "You feel close to everybody."

Susan and Jeffrey Dowling of Selden attended with their 2-year-old daughter, Juliet, for the second time.

"We're going to come every year," said Susan, 33, adding that Juliet's great-grandmother was buried in the cemetery. "It's a great time for our family to get together."

Bob Bauer, 82, of St. James, said he remembered a church member who dressed up as Santa Claus and doled out candy canes and oranges following Christmas services.

"I love it," he said of attending since the late 1940s. "It's warm. It's inviting. . . . It's looking back at a simpler time."

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