IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Churches, synagogues reimagine holiday services — and their messages of faith

"We have certain delusions as Americans that we have control of all of this stuff. Any catastrophe, any cataclysmic event ... and our hope is in our God."
Image: Father Martin Lally
Martin Lally, a priest at Holy Family Catholic Church in Denver, said of this holiday season: "The message of the Scriptures is 'Hang in there, God is with us.'"Rachel Woolf / for NBC News

DENVER — On the first night of Hanukkah, hundreds of people show up at Temple Micah for a latke cooking competition. Families bring their menorahs, light candles, feast on potato pancakes, award prizes and sing.

It should come as no surprise, as the coronavirus pandemic rages, that this year's celebration will be virtual.

"We'll have some people demonstrating latke cooking online," Rabbi Adam Morris said. "I envision the Zoom screen with all the Hanukkah lights lit."

For communities of faith, Covid-19 has upended traditions and placed annual festivities at churches and synagogues on hold, forcing rabbis, pastors and priests to reimagine Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations and rethink their messages to the faithful.

"I think my basic message is that we don't have control," said David Thatcher, a priest at Holy Transfiguration of Christ Orthodox Cathedral. "We have certain delusions as Americans that we have control of all of this stuff. Any catastrophe, any cataclysmic event in our lives, and our hope is in our God."

With cases surging across the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued strict guidelines for gathering in houses of worship. At those still offering in-person services, instead of hundreds of people in sanctuaries, there are only dozens, and they must socially distance and wear masks.

Almost 300,000 people in the U.S. have died from Covid-19, and their loved ones are mourning, tingeing the holiday season with sadness and loss, faith leaders said.

Rabbi Evette Lutman of B'nai Havurah in Denver said of this holiday season, "We're experiencing all kinds of grief, all kinds of loss."Rachel Woolf / for NBC News

"It's easy for me to say look on the bright side," said Rabbi Evette Lutman of B'nai Havurah. "We're experiencing all kinds of grief, all kinds of loss. The worst thing you can do when you're experiencing grief is to whitewash it over and say, 'I'm fine with that, and let's move on.'"

Lutman, who is holding this year's Hanukkah songfest on Zoom, said she tries to help members make some sense of these trying times.

"How sad it would be if we missed this unique place and time to recognize the opportunity to make the world better," she said, "to use the wound as an opportunity to heal."

Morris, the rabbi at Temple Micah, likened this holiday season to a chocolate chip cookie without the chocolate chips — it can still taste good, but it's not the same.

"It's been lacking that kind of unspoken quality of what you can do with a touch or a glance or where you feel spirit," he said. "When you have a room of people singing together, there's something happening. We've missed that."

Rabbi Adam Morris of Temple Micah in Denver said of this year's virtual services: "When you have a room of people singing together, there's something happening. We've missed that." Rachel Woolf / for NBC News

Not all churches have been willing to accept government restrictions on gatherings. Two churches in the Denver suburbs, Community Baptist Church and Denver Bible Church, sued the state to continue worshipping indoors.

A federal judge ruled in their favor in October, saying the state cannot force congregants to wear masks or limit gatherings. The following month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that restrictions on capacity at houses of worship and religious events are unconstitutional.

Colorado conceded this month that the high court's decision made it unlikely that the state could enforce restrictions.

A survey by Parade magazine and the Cleveland Clinic indicated that just 9 percent of those surveyed said they planned to attend holiday services this year, down from 2017, when the Pew Research Center found that more than half of those surveyed said they would go to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

The Rev. Martin Lally, a priest who has led Holy Family Catholic Church in Denver for eight years, said 300 people normally pack his church on Christmas, with more spilling out the doors. The sanctuary would be adorned with Christmas trees, poinsettias and garlands and red bows on the railings.

This year, only 50 people will be allowed inside, and the children's pageant and the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Masses will be prerecorded to watch on YouTube or Facebook. If nothing else, he said, the pandemic has taught people perseverance: "The message of the Scriptures is 'Hang in there, God is with us.'"

At Temple Micah, Morris will convey a similar idea.

"We're just trying to be present and help people feel connected," he said. "To me, that's where God is. Keep on keeping on. We have what we need to bring meaning to each other, to bring compassion to our world. Keep on keeping on."

The Rev. Nathan Adams, lead pastor at Park Hill United Methodist Church, which distributed kits to congregants containing a script to follow along with the virtual Christmas service. Rachel Woolf / for NBC News

The Rev. Nathan Adams, lead pastor at Park Hill United Methodist Church, canceled in-person Christmas services, which usually include carols, candle-lighting and Holy Communion. Instead, they will be virtual, with a new camera and audio system and a California production company directing from Los Angeles.

"The big traditions that people are used to being able to see or experience or participate in, we're going to be doing that still in these services, but do them in a way, best we can, knowing that people aren't in the room with us," Adams said.

The church distributed kits to congregants containing candles, song lyrics and a script for the service. The livestream will include a chat feature, allowing people to engage with the ministers and one another. And when it comes to Holy Communion, most anything goes.

"We just encourage folks to use whatever they have at home," Adams said. "If you have bread and juice, that's great. If you have tortilla chips and water or soda, that's up to you. The Holy Spirit can move in whatever your elements are. God's grace is still present."

On Christmas, he will point them to John 1:5 in the New Testament: "The light shined in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it."