One-night Shopping Trip At Churches Helps Take The Commercial Out Of Christmas

December 23, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

I've never met Joe and Peggy Werner, but I endorse their suggestion that a memorable Christmas Eve could be spent in church along Baltimore's Charles Street corridor. They recommended starting early, dropping in here and there, and breaking for dinner.

Joe recalled a Christmas Eve experience at SS. Philip and James Roman Catholic Church in Charles Village where gowned hostesses acting as ushers invited him to a post-midnight parish reception. I've been to that gathering and can attest to its being squarely in the best tradition of this feast day. He also liked the dramatic lighting of the high altar and also cast a vote in favor of the musical program at First English Lutheran, Charles and 39th.

The Werners know of my affection for Christmas Eve church-shopping, which often yields simple yet powerful pleasure. En route to my sister's Federal Hill home for an early family gathering one icy night, I caught the congregants filing into St. Mary Star of the Sea as a magic light issued through the stained-glass windows -- a fine Christmas visual.

There was perhaps no one who was more social than my mother, who believed that a day was well spent only when it was filled with family and friends. She had the energy and will to pack in a lot, and Christmas was no exception. In addition to whatever church she was then favoring, we had visits with neighbors, cousins across town and a lengthy session with cloistered nuns who had few if any family in Baltimore. I learned from her that religion is all about the people, not the props.

Most city churches are so glad to see anyone show up that the ushers aren't taken aback by comings and goings, accompanied by one-night-of-the-year behavior. A priest friend of mine confided that Christmas Eve cannot be counted as highly successful unless an alcohol-assisted fistfight breaks out on the parking lot.

Last year I re-energized myself with a mid-evening nap before going out on a second tour. About 10 p.m., I hailed a cab and took off for some of the downtown churches. I see all this as a form of grand opera -- and I'm not so sure about the spirituality. But is any motivation truly pure?

A few impressions: The clergy at Grace and St. Peter's were so heavily robed in vestments that they looked like moving mountains as they shifted about a sanctuary redolent with incense. I broke for fresh air and then watched the First Presbyterian choir cluster around a booming organ.

The Tridentine Mass at St. Alphonsus went into extra innings, and only the drunks were left on the streets at its end. At a distance, I witnessed some amazing 2:30 a.m. scenes at nearby all-night Park Avenue takeout restaurants and bars, which, in their own way, resembled the rambunctious revelry on old Christmas cards.

At the end of the night, you might have heard a great church choir and quite possibly a few bad notes from an organ or some overbearing trumpets. But a couple of sessions in old Baltimore churches help overcome the fatigue of a commercial Christmas.

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