35: Christmas Eve Service

35: Christmas Eve Service

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Christmas Eve Service

Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.

~William Arthur Ward

“Merry Christmas!” Annie called out as soon as I entered the Fellowship Hall. When she saw the cookies I carried, she angled her head toward the kitchen. “You can drop those off with Gary.”

Every church, synagogue or house of worship has an Annie and Gary. They’re the couple who help without being asked, step forward when others step back, and make congregational life run smoothly. But there’s a twist to Annie and Gary’s volunteering: Annie chairs committees, organizes fundraisers and takes center stage. Just as warm, but quieter, Gary supervises coffee hour and washes dishes after potlucks. This might be common among my peers, but not in the previous generation. I wondered — did Gary mind doing “domestic” chores?

“I like being back here,” he said, standing at the oversized kitchen sink. Wearing a chef’s apron, he rinsed and loaded dirty cups and plates onto racks and ran them through the church’s heavy-duty commercial dishwasher. Sleeves rolled up, hands soapy, face pink from the steamy hot water, Gary seemed happy. “This is my calling. This is the best way I know of serving people. The work is spiritual, especially when there’s a full congregation worshiping upstairs and you’re all alone down here.”

He made it sound so easy and serene, but it wasn’t. Week after week, Gary handled the many tasks associated with coffee hour: operating the industrial-sized coffee machine, laying out the snacks for kids and adults, setting up tables and chairs so people could linger after the service — a service Gary rarely got to attend in its entirety. He either came in late, slipped out early, or never made it upstairs at all.

Until I got to know Gary I took his labors for granted. Like other parents with young children, I volunteered in Sunday school and felt that was enough. As my girls got older and could manage for themselves, I began helping out with coffee hour. Eventually I learned my way around the kitchen and grew to enjoy the quiet Gary talked about. Missing a service now and then was fine, but not Christmas. Never Christmas. I couldn’t imagine missing a Christmas Eve service.

Except the reception following Christmas Eve service was the church’s most crucial coffee-hour event. Attendance doubled, and the tradition of members dropping off home-baked cookies, cakes and treats meant someone had to stay downstairs to receive the goodies. Then there was the long to-do list: make the holiday punch; lay out linens and napkins; cut up the coffeecakes, fruit cakes, rum cakes; arrange slices and cookies for serving; and brew coffee.

The reception volunteer missed out on all that made Christmas Eve special — the carol sing-along; ringing the jingle bells as the children paraded around the sanctuary; passing the light during the “Silent Night” candle ritual; seeing the darkened sanctuary lit by the glow of two hundred dancing flames. Missing these traditions would mean missing Christmas, I thought. Not me. I wouldn’t.

Fortunately, I was never asked to make that sacrifice. You can guess who did it.

But not even Gary could be two places at once. The year my husband was president of the congregation, Gary announced he’d be out of town Christmas Eve. Jim explained the jam he was in. I listened stony-faced with arms crossed. Finally, he just said it: “Would you organize the cookie reception?”

My look would have dimmed even Rudolph’s shining nose. “You’re kidding, right?”

“I can’t ask anybody else. You know what’s involved. And I bet your mother would be willing to help.”

“But the service ends at eight, and there’ll be people in the Fellowship Hall until nine. It’ll take at least forty-five minutes to get everything cleaned up and put away. And my mother can’t drive after dark; I’ll have to take her home. That means I won’t get home until close to eleven. I’ll miss Christmas Eve with the girls.”

“I’ll pick your mother up before church. And I’ll get the girls to bed and help them set out milk and cookies for Santa. I really need your help.”

I felt aggrieved and put-upon as I arrived at church an hour early on Christmas Eve. Not wanting my mother to miss out too, I shooed her away as the service started. “I need you up there to make sure the girls don’t get burned by hot wax,” I told her. “You have to help them with their candles during ‘Silent Night.’ ”

Alone, I somehow felt better. The music filtered down from above, setting a steady rhythm for the work ahead. I rinsed out the punch bowl and poured in lemon-lime soda, fruit juice and sherbet. I draped three banquet tables with colorful tablecloths, then artfully arranged Christmas-themed paper napkins. I moved evergreen boughs from the windows to the tables and nestled votive candle-holders among them. When the coffee machine’s ready-to-brew light went on, I put the big industrial filters into the metal baskets and filled them with ground coffee.

Each simple kitchen task, familiar to me after years of volunteering, took on the majesty of ritual. I began to understand what Gary meant about service to others being spiritual.

The rumble of footsteps in the stairwell broke my reverie. The Fellowship Hall was soon standing-room-only. Mounds of cookies and sweets were reduced to a few scattered crumbs on empty plates. The large room echoed with holiday spirit, the joy of fellowship and community. I felt an unexpected ownership of this moment, as if this were my home and I was responsible for everyone’s good cheer.

The reception came to a close and a steady stream of members and friends filed into the kitchen to drop their glasses and cups into a sink topped with soapsuds. I’d hoped to get a head start on the dishes, but I kept needing to stop and dry my hands to receive hugs, thanks and praise.

An hour later I locked up the church and drove my mother home, giddy with success and relief. We exclaimed over the holiday light displays we passed, and I added a few extra turns to the trip to see the most spectacular houses. After dropping her off, I followed my usual route for the twenty-minute crosstown drive from her house to mine. Yet tonight, the roads I’d taken hundreds of times before were completely transformed.

Every street was lined with glowing paper bag luminarias. I’d never been in this part of town on Christmas Eve and had forgotten the neighborhood’s longstanding tradition of lighting the way in the spirit of the season. This was a magical moment I’d never witnessed because I’d never ventured outside my usual routine.

I drove home filled with the joy of a different kind of Christmas Eve service — not the service that I’d missed, but the service I’d offered to others — and how it had made this night the most memorable Christmas Eve of all.

~Linda Lowen

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