"You kind of go into survival mode over the holidays," says Father Joe Bell, pastor of St. Peter Catholic Parish in Spokane. "Most of my priest friends, they're exhausted at Christmas. I think maybe twice in 31 years I've gotten home to celebrate with my family. I have a sister in the area now, though, so traditionally we celebrate with a meal on Christmas Eve, between masses."
Once the Christmas services are over, Bell takes some time alone to relax. "A lot of families [in the parish] invite me to dinner, both at Thanksgiving and at Christmas, and I tried doing that when I was younger, but I don't have that kind of energy now," he laughs. "It's hard, you know? You can't take your shoes off. And it's embarrassing if you fall asleep in their chair after dinner."
Now that more women are moving into ministry, they're coming up with different ways to cope with the demands of family and church.
"It's the whole notion of boundaries," says Reverend Andrea "Andy" CastroLang, pastor of Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ. "I chose to be both a mom and a minister, to be both married and a minister. [Women in ministry are] charting a new course. I find myself doing a little dance, cutting things out of my church life, or calling on other church leaders -- the deacons -- to help me. I do not want to raise up our kids to hate Christmas because it's a time when Mom wasn't available. I try to protect for them the traditions I grew up with about the joy and the peace of Christmas. I've been defensive about what a church can expect of me at the holidays. I believe that not only do we serve a loving God but also a God who loves us through the people around us, and I'm not going to neglect them."
At Hamblen Park Presbyterian, Associate Pastor Robin Garvin says it's crucial that she carve out time for her family and for her own spiritual discipline amid the craziness of the holidays.
"At home, we have our own advent wreath and candle, and our own tradition around that," she says. "For us as a family, it keeps us centered. On a real practical level, we think about any gifting quite early. A lot of it is advance preparation, trying to keep the personal and family disciplines in place."
Even with all that planning, the holidays remain an exhausting time, she says. "By Christmas, I'm tired, just really fatigued. My family, we take a few days right after Christmas to go up to the Methow Valley and regroup. We just ski, eat and read. Our daughter looks forward to that because she knows she has our undivided time."
The pastors all acknowledge the need to watch out for the vulnerable members of their communities especially around the holidays. People who are recently bereaved or who face serious illness may quietly withdraw into their own pain, and pastors feel a particular responsibility to help them feel supported during a difficult time.
Another aspect of holiday services is the overflow crowds. Partly this is due to visiting grandparents, returning college students and other friends and family visiting for the holidays. But every pastor sees unfamiliar faces at Christmas and Easter, when people who do not attend church regularly feel a tug toward the spiritual.
"We're leading worship for an entire congregation, but we're also serving visitors," says Garvin. "There are always people who feel a sense of being drawn to the church during the holidays, a longing for something from the past, or perhaps just a curiosity. A lot of people speak disparagingly of 'Christmas and Easter Christians,' but that bothers me. Who are we to know of a person's interior? Whatever brings them to us, we're happy they've come."
At St. Peter's, the earliest mass on Christmas Eve is geared toward families with small children, and it's always one of the largest masses of the entire year.
"We set up extra chairs in the foyer, but it's standing room only," Bell says. "If you don't get there early, you probably won't find a seat. We get a lot of visitors, a lot of families who gather and go to church together. There's also a sense that Christmas and Easter are special days, so people who don't attend regularly will come on those two days."
Because of the larger than usual crowds and the distractions that arise with special holiday services, Bell says he finds it more difficult than usual to preach on Christmas and Easter.
"If you've been in a parish for a time, you know your parish. On the special feast days, you don't know who's going to be there. But even though it's difficult, I love the feast."
The biggest challenge -- and the greatest reward -- for all of the pastors is breaking through the overwhelmingly secular aspects of the holidays to reach what's hidden within.
"Every family has its traditions and every church family has its traditions," says CastroLang. "You're trying to keep the deep meanings in both places. If you're worth your salt, you take this commercialized, trashed holiday and it's almost like you're squeezing water from a rock -- squeezing out the theological drops, the story of the God who bothers to come down and be with us, taking the form of a little baby. That's what it's all about."