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Churches Are Doing Christmas Over With Holiday Services In July

NOEL KING, HOST:

The pandemic has been very difficult for a lot of people who go to church. Many have missed two Easters and a Christmas now. But houses of worship are taking advantage of lower case counts and good weather. And they are reopening.

Here's Deena Prichep.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Like a lot of churches, Downriver United Methodist spent Christmas in lockdown while cases surged in Michigan. There were some limited-capacity services - some over Zoom.

But for congregants like Virginia Scheibel, it wasn't the same.

VIRGINIA SCHEIBEL: I have no technology at my house, (laughter) so - and it was just so different.

PRICHEP: She couldn't stream the service, couldn't visit with family.

SCHEIBEL: We usually get together. And we play games. And we open our presents. And we just have fun. And we had no fun this year.

PRICHEP: Scheibel got through it by looking to the future.

SCHEIBEL: So I said to my daughter one day, well, if we can't have Christmas now, let's have it in July.

PRICHEP: Scheibel is planning her congregation's Christmas in July celebration. They'll have Christmas cookies and carols alongside barbecue and shaved ice. Now, this isn't the first ever Christmas in July event. The name's been used for charitable drives, marketing ploys, movie reruns. But the idea of a sort of do-over Christmas feels unique to this year.

SARAH LEE-FAULKNER: People just want to come together because the church is another family for people.

PRICHEP: Sarah Lee-Faulkner is the pastor at Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity outside of Pittsburgh. Their Christmas in July will have the Nativity story, the carols, even Christmas dinner. Back in December, their outdoor service was rained out. So Christmas was distanced, livestreamed, with just one person playing the hand bells instead of the full choir.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANZ XAVER GRUBER'S "SILENT NIGHT")

PRICHEP: Lee-Faulkner says that kind of service can be beautiful and contemplative, which is part of the Christmas story. But Christmas is also about joy, which has been harder to find.

LEE-FAULKNER: In talking about Jesus being the light coming into the world, it seems to be a good time to be doing that.

DAVID CHAVEZ: It feels like we've come out - as a community, as a church, as a nation, we're on our way out of the long winter.

PRICHEP: David Chavez is music and worship minister at Abiding Presence Lutheran Church outside of Washington, D.C. He spent this past year figuring out how to bring folks together - editing voices into virtual services, performing to the cameras and mourning the separation.

CHAVEZ: The pandemic winter - and speaking of that as a long winter - it revealed the best of us - like our church community, our local community, our nation, our world. And it also revealed the worst of us at the same time.

PRICHEP: And now Chavez is looking forward to his church's Christmas in July. He's planning to wear a Christmas T-shirt and hear what the Christmas story has to say to this moment and gather the choir together for one of his favorite carols, which he's been singing alone in his office-turned-Zoom-studio.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN")

CHAVEZ: (Singing) Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere.

PRICHEP: Christmas is usually celebrated on one of the longest nights of the year, when the light of the world scatters the darkness. Nobody knows when Jesus was really born. It might not have been December at all. And for many congregations, finally coming together again brings that hope of a new dawn.

For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS IN JULY")

SUFJAN STEVENS: (Singing) If I missed my chance, I didn't even try. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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