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CANADA: Churches look for ways to evoke a true Christmas mass in COVID-19 pandemic

Some of the most powerful elements of Christmas mass just aren’t the same outside the church

TORONTO — Nothing captures the spirit of the holiday season quite like the glorious choirs at Christmas mass, and so it’s with a heavy heart that Remi Hebert is moving forward with a muted version this year.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the lead pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Grande Prairie, Alta., would be using the final days before Christmas to prepare for parishioners flowing in by the hundreds.

But as provincial governments across Canada enact measures to restrict crowd sizes, most people will be worshipping at home in virtual ceremonies that strive to replicate a traditional Christmas mass through a laptop screen.

It’s a feat that church leaders acknowledge is easier said than done.

Some of the most powerful elements of Christmas mass just aren’t the same outside the church. The mighty force of the pipe organs guiding the congregation through familiar hymns fall short on tiny computer speakers, for instance.

“My mantra right now is: Please, I hope you understand…it’s different for everyone this year,” Hebert said 

At his church, smaller masses on Christmas Eve and Day will accommodate about 180 churchgoers, following Alberta health guidelines, he said. That’s far fewer than the 1,000 or more who usually attend.

But even those events will be missing familiar elements, such as the hymns.

“We just recite them now, so that people are not singing along,” he explained.

“I say: In your living room you can sing ‘Joy to the World,’ but in a church you can’t… It's not in front of the altar now, it’s in front of the TV.”

A recent survey led by Angus Reid found the pandemic will reduce Christmas church attendance by more than half compared to last year.

The online study, conducted in late November, found 11 per cent of Canadians say they’ll physically attend church, a drop from 26 per cent in 2019. Among respondents who viewed Christmas as a religious holiday, 45 per cent said they planned to watch an online church service instead.

Having the virtual option is helpful, but Jeff Joudrey lamented the loss of unity that’s associated with church gatherings. 

The director of music at Trinity-St. Stephen's United Church in Amherst, N.S. said group song offers a connection that’s especially important in times of crisis. He considers Christmas mass one of the instances where people would look to their faith for a path forward. 

“They're turning to music that is familiar to them since they've been children,” he said.

“Yeah, they may go once a year, but that's still an important tradition.”

Joudrey said while some church choirs may consider performing outdoors, the unpredictability of winter weather is a deterrent. Then there’s the deep cold of the Atlantic, which is unforgiving to singer’s voices. 

Kellie Walsh hoped she’d found an alternate way to celebrate the songs of Christmas through her choral group Lady Cove Women’s Choir. 

Several weeks before Christmas, the St. John’s, N.L.-based ensemble booked three churches within walking distance of each other. The idea was to bring groups of about 60 people inside each one, and then have the choir and musicians rotate between the locations to put on a show.

But Walsh said as COVID-19 cases in Newfoundland ticked up, the group decided they couldn’t move forward with their plan in good conscience.

“We spent a full 12 weeks preparing this music, feeling so great that we were able to do this for ourselves, our community and the coral art form,” she said.

“(The cancellation) was hugely emotional.”

Rev. Alexa Gilmour recalled feeling similar “grief” when it became clear that Windermere United Church in Toronto would be closed for the holidays, with all of its services moving online.

Dashed were any hopes the church would hold its annual Christmas pageant sing-along with kids from the neighbourhood, and other events were shelved in their usual form.

Gilmour said it’s impossible to truly recreate the spirit of a church mass over a virtual platform.

“What it doesn't have is that piece where I run into you in the cloakroom and ask how you're doing. And you say, ‘Not very well.’ And I hug you. And, for a moment, we're together and the burden is lifted,” she said.

“We can't recreate that in a one-hour Zoom.”

But she won't accept that Christmas mass can’t move forward at all. Instead, Gilmour said her church has considered more creative ways to offer comfort in the face of the pronounced isolation of the holidays.

On Christmas Day, they will host an “alone together” Zoom chat that will attempt to bridge the distance by delivering homemade treats to each participant.

“We will experience the smells and tastes of Christmas... together,” she said.

“Now more than ever we need to know that coronavirus is real, (but) there is a light that will not be overcome. Coronavirus will not destroy all that we have.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 22, 2020.

David Friend, The Canadian Press