As Region residents get ready for Christmas by decking the halls, dressing in holiday style and sharing good tidings, area pastors remind their members of the reason for the season.
To do so, Protestant churches include longstanding traditions — religious and charitable — during Advent, the weeks leading up to Christmas.
At Bethel Christian Reform Church in Lansing, the congregation begins Advent with the Lord’s Supper Communion service. “We light Advent candles each Sunday leading up to Christmas, and at our Christmas Day service, we light the Christ Candle” said Pastor Cal Aardsma. “We also sing a lot of Christmas carols from Advent through Christmas. This time of year, people are nostalgic for the carols they grew up with.”
Throughout Advent, there are special Sunday evening services, with three planned for this year, said Aardsma. There will be a candlelight service led by the high school youth group on Dec. 2 and during the children’s program on Dec. 9, a flame will be passed to light everyone’s candle (with a battery-operated option for the kids) to represent carrying the light of the world. Finally, at the morning service on Dec. 16, the choir will present a Christmas cantata and the evening service will feature a “Carol Sing.”
Aardsma said that on Christmas Day, the service ends with the congregation joining the choir in singing the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's "Messiah." “Many congregants come forward or sing from their seats,” he noted.
Pastor Heather Foley of Chesterton’s First United Methodist Church is fairly new to the Region but said that candle lighting at Christmas is a time-honored tradition in most churches. At this church, candles are lit on Christmas Eve to represent Jesus. At the close of the service, they pass the flame from the Christ Candle at the center of church to each church member of the congregation while singing “Silent Night.”
“God is Light; we understand that Jesus is the light of the world,” said Foley. “When we hold our individual candles, it’s very participatory; individuals are included in God’s story. It reminds us that Jesus is with us and that we carry Christ into the world through this light.”
Foley noted that sharing religious customs with younger generations is very important. “While younger generations are not as religious, they are looking for purpose,” she said. “Explaining the traditions to them helps them find meaning and be a part of the community.”
The nondenominational South Side Christian Church in Munster “speaks where the Bible speaks and is silent where the Bible is silent.” While there is a senior minister and an associate minister, church members are the leaders.
One such leader is Jeff Hayden, who has been the Chairman of Elders for 25 years. He noted that in addition to the religious observances during Advent and Christmas, which include a traditional Christmas Eve service and a children’s program, the church focuses on helping those in need. That includes a ministry that feeds the homeless each month and provides a full dinner for Christmas and the preschool that donates food to food banks and collects toys to give to Toys for Tots.
Hayden said the church participates in the Samaritan’s Purse Shoebox Christmas, which sends shoeboxes filled with items to underprivileged children throughout the U.S. In addition, the church provides clothing, coats, socks, and gloves to the homeless at Christmas, as well as donating socks, gloves and hats to the Christian Service Center mission in one of Chicago’s lowest income neighborhoods. “Ladies in our church actually knit some of the hats and gloves that we donate,” said Hayden.
The church also collects packages of new underwear that are given to a school in a low-income area of Hammond.
Hayden is proud of the efforts made by South Side Christian Church. “While it’s important to maintain religious traditions, we also believe in observing the holidays by giving to the greater good,” he said.