Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Twice-a-year Christians

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In three days Winnipeggers will be emptying their stockings, and packing the pews.

"It's interesting to me that it's something that hasn't diminished over the years. Mainline churches have (less attendance on Sundays) but Christmas Eve is still full," says Rev. Michael Wilson of Charleswood United Church.

About 300 faithful attend the Roblin Avenue church on Sunday mornings, but the church regularly sees 1,200 or more souls during its four Christmas Eve services, held at 5, 7, 9 and 11 p.m.

"I think it's largely an expansion of the community," says Wilson, who will lead the first and last services on Wednesday, Dec. 24. "On Christmas Eve, the brother-in-law comes, the parents come. It's an expansion of the household."

Sometimes referred to as or C and E (Christmas and Easter) Christians, or even holly and lily Christians, referring to the foliage and flowers at those holidays, infrequent attenders can present an interesting dilemma to priests and ministers.

Rev. Brian Massie of St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church understand some folks are attending because of tradition, or even duty, and are comfortable with just an annual appearance at services, while other casual attenders may be looking for a way back into the fold.

"It's a bit of a challenge if you're preaching, because you're conscious at this time of their life they may want to pick up (their faith) again," he says.

Holiday attenders are warmly welcomed at St. Ignatius, which holds three Christmas Eve services in its 1,000-seat sanctuary on Stafford Sreet: a family mass at 7 p.m., a folk mass at 9:30, and the traditional midnight mass.

For brothers Andrew and Michael Colp, attending midnight mass in their mother's Roman Catholic parish isn't a faith quest, but an extension of their family holiday celebrations.

"Tradition is a big part of it. My mom, who is still practising, likes us to go. It's a hidden part of our gift," explains Michael, 30.

A former altar boy who went to Sunday school and attended mass regularly until he was 19, Andrew Colp, 27, now describes himself as atheist and doesn't consider his presence at midnight mass as worship in the genuine sense of the word.

"I don't want to go to church every week, but I certainly don't have a problem going once a year," he says via e-mail. "It is interesting, in a way, to revisit that part of my past, and I think there is a nice vibe at the Christmas masses anyway, a general sense of Christmas spirit and of 'goodwill to man' among the congregation."

Massie is comfortable with meeting people like Andrew Colp on Christmas Eve, and says the holidays are not a time to push people back into church, but rather provide a chance to connect again.

"I think the Catholic attitude is more like AA. It's more attraction than promotion," he says. "If you like what we have, come back."

Downtown at the century-old Calvary Temple, Rev. Bruce Martin says the crush of visitors at the 6 p.m. Christmas Eve service provides him the opportunity to "give them heaven."

"I bring it (my sermon) to the basics for sure and I talk about relationships and relationships with Christ," says Martin of how he preaches at a service full of holiday attendees, many of whom may live nearby or have a past connection to the inner-city Pentecostal congregation.

"There's life here and children and music and it reminds them or their roots," said Martin.

With four different choirs singing at the four Dec. 24 services, there's plenty of life over at Charleswood United as well. Wilson says his emphasis on that day is celebrating the season through words and music and communion, with no attempt to convert or convince a captive audience.

"I just feel it's such an evening of grace and mystery so you do what you do and not over explain it."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 21, 2008 B11

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