A look at any Queen City neighborhood this month shows how seriously we take holiday decorating around here. But it goes beyond homes: our churches and synagogues also pull out all the stops to lavishly decorate for holiday – literally, “holy day” – services and festivities.
But unlike the bedazzling outdoor decorations of houses of residence, for houses of worship the greatest decoration is typically indoors – which is a good reason to go in. During the holiday seasons around Christmas and Hanukkah, and Easter and Passover, churches and synagogues see many visitors, with family members home for the holidays and the loosely affiliated making a point to attend services. That makes the holidays a good time to visit without sticking out like a sore thumb. And a good time to see the interiors at their loveliest.
This year First Presbyterian Church at Symphony Circle took this idea a step further: a few days before Christmas they invited the community in just to enjoy and photograph the Christmas decorations in their landmark sanctuary and chapel. These are among Buffalo’s most architecturally significant and spectacular interiors, including Tiffany windows. The decorations only made them all the more warm and welcoming, and putting out punch and cookies was a nice touch, too.
Over the last decade First Presbyterian has been trying new, creative ideas to engage with the community after a financial crisis left things looking very bleak for a time. Under interim pastors Rev. Phil Gittings and Rev. Elena Delgado they took a leap of faith (as I wrote about here) in leasing excess space that breathed new life into Buffalo’s oldest religious organization and Buffalo’s most significant landmark church. Hot dog cookouts and holiday open houses are just a couple of the many smart efforts that continue under Rev. Ken Hughes, the church’s first permanent pastor in nearly a decade.
See more pictures of the decorations at First Presbyterian in the photo gallery at the end.
But at the risk of being sectarian – and to speak strictly in generalities – Catholic churches seem to me to take the prize in holiday decorating. Why? Centuries of serving largely illiterate populations and the ready assimilation of elements of pre-Christian culture and symbolism (the priest, Latin and Greek, the basilica, the evergreen tree, and even the date of the holiday itself: Saturnalia) gives Catholicism a deep connection to visual and auditory symbolism. Think shrines, statuary, stained glass windows, stations of the Cross, frescoes, illuminated manuscripts, bells, chanting, etc.
Especially during the holidays, all the imagery and symbolism come into play. It’s no accident, I think, that a Catholic priest, Father Roy Herberger, has created one of the world’s largest collections of crèches, hailing from all corners of the globe, telling the Christmas story in ways befitting every imaginable style and culture.
These localized traditions even extend down to the parish level. Most Catholic churches have spent lavishly on holiday decorations over decades, and putting them on display can be a ritual in and of itself unique to each parish that helps build fellowship among parishioners even more than holiday services themselves.
Still, these traditions often have common elements: poinsettias by the truckload (seemingly) are arranged in sanctuaries. The doors to obscure, mysterious cabinets in vestries and to musty, spooky undercrofts are thrown open and disgorge their contents of wreaths and lights and logs and candles and ornaments and crèche figures that can be as big as the children they will delight.
Older parishioners show the next generation just where the figures go, perhaps pointing to where one had to be repaired in 1972 as a reminder to be careful. They demonstrate how to assemble the rustic pieces of the stable while remembering those who showed them years ago, and remembering their wakes.
In some churches, decorating doubles as a holiday party, with Christmas cookies and desserts and chocolate hot and cold. At St. Louis Church, this is when parishioners decorate a special tree with donated mittens and gloves and hats and scarves, with space for others to add more, that will be donated after the holidays.
In addition to First Presbyterian, I also had the opportunity to take photos of decoration at Christmas Eve Mass at St. Michael’s Church downtown, and on Christmas morning Mass at Blessed Sacrament Church on Delaware at Utica, site of Buffalo Mass Mob XXXI last January.
St. Michael’s Church is in a unique position in the Diocese in that it is no longer really a geographic parish. It’s original parish was largely displaced by downtown development and demolished for construction of the Oak-Elm Corridor. Yet as the flagship church of the Jesuits in Buffalo, it plays a special role in the lives of Catholics associated with several institutions served by the order, including Canisius College, Canisius High School, the Response to Love Center, and St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy. Folks associated with all of those institutions descended on the church Christmas Eve from all over the Diocese, creating such a full house I felt like I was at a Mass Mob. Sister Johnice was there, as was Assemblyman Robin Schimminger and his wife, Melinda. I ran into a friend from South Buffalo whose family tradition after Christmas Eve Mass is going out for wings (of course).
While it’s a challenge to create a sense of community at a parish where nearly everyone comes in from somewhere else, Father Fred Betti has been working very hard to do just that. His less formal “Salt and Light” Masses on Sunday evenings, in particular, seem to be going a long way in that direction.
See more pictures of Christmas Eve Mass at St. Michael’s Church in the photo gallery at the end.
On Christmas morning, we visited Blessed Sacrament Church. With a new priest, Father Joseph Porpiglia, the church decided to change tradition a bit (not necessarily an easy thing to do in a Catholic church) by deploying their Christmas decorations on and around the altar, rather than in the back of the sanctuary. Everyone seemed very pleased with the results. I was astonished at how expressive the crèche figures were – even the camel, who looked like he was trying to let me in on an inside joke. You can see more in the photo gallery below.
Father Joe has an engaging style, delivering his homilies in the aisle amid the congregation, and openly acknowledging those who are visiting and have birthdays and wedding anniversaries. That not only makes people feel welcome, it serves as a conversation starter after Mass when it can be all too easy to just walk out without really engaging with anyone. It also sends a message that the parish priest is approachable, which I can sadly affirm is not a vibe found at every parish. This will serve the church well, I think, in welcoming the many new residents soon to arrive at Elmwood Crossing nearby.
More pictures in the photo gallery below. Best holiday wishes to you and yours!