"What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? ... God will judge those outside."
1 Corinthians 5:12-13, (NIV)
Regular churchgoers have a pet name for those who show up at church only on the holidays. In New York, Italian Catholics call them "Nataline and Pasqualine's," in the Washington area, Protestants refer to them as "C and E'ers" or, as one Springfield Lutheran church secretary glibly dubs them: "Our Santas and Bunnies."
Such dubbing may be in good humor, but it has its edge of criticism. The faithful, after all, dedicate much time and energy to their church community throughout the year. It is little wonder they may resent holiday Christians filling their pews and taking their seats.
And there is the delicate question that few churchgoers like to articulate, especially during a season of spiritual celebration and brotherly love.
Is a holiday show of faith equal to a weekly show of faith?
But this is Christmas, not Judgment Day. So with the lighting of candles and the warm handshake at the church door, newcomers are generally expected and welcomed by congregations -- and especially by the clergy.
"There are the regular Christian folk who come back each holiday," observes the Rev. Richard Eick of the Bethel United Church of Christ in Arlington, "and there are those who come for just one or two Christmases and we never see them again."
The likelihood of any holiday worshipers becoming full-time members of this modest and close congregation of 250 is "very small," says Eick, who knows the name and face of all his parishioners. "But I'm not discouraged," he says. "They may say, 'Ah, we've been missing something.' "
Eick's philosophy is "to be welcoming but not aggressively. I give them space. I move closer only if they move closer."
And yet Eick, like many of his clergy colleagues, is concerned and curious about holiday worshipers.
"I ask myself, 'What brings them here? What keeps them away in October and May?' "
Not many people want to talk about the reasons for their infrequent church attendance. The majority of the men and women interviewed for this article insisted that their names not be used. The issue was not just a sense of privacy with one's God or spiritual propriety, it also was a concern for one's mother.
"I can't tell you how many of my friends go to church on Christmas because their mother or their parents expect them to," says 43-year-old Terry Serie.
"But I do the same thing," says the Washington bachelor. "I'm not with my parents, but if I've been invited to Christmas dinner with someone's family and they get up to go to church, so do I."
Serie, who was once an altar boy and member of the choir in a small church in central Minnesota, says he no longer enjoys church services. "But I enjoy the pageantry at Christmas service. It evokes so many family memories."
He is not alone. If any one incentive could explain why nonpracticing Christians leave their warm hearths and beds on Christmas Eve and morning for the cold trek to church and the hour or more of services, it would be to relive childhood memories.
As one 54-year-old Washington attorney puts it, "It is the only holiday that carries an emotion for me from my past and I want to preserve it."
This man, who has no children, deliberately selects a family and community service "where there are lots of people, young children dressed as angels and everyone singing carols."
The carols are undeniably part of the lure. The coldest of hearts and the weakest in faith cannot resist coming to hear and sing the soft and sweet "Silent Night" and the rousing chorus of "Angels We Have Heard on High."
"We plan on and prepare for this very thing," exclaims the Rev. Duane Alvord of St. John's Episcopal church in Bethesda. "We count on our regular people and strangers being here to enjoy the music and pageantry. Our musicians and singers have spent months preparing for this."
Alvord, who says "the more the merrier," each year gives out chocolate kisses at the church door on Christmas Eve and chocolate eggs at Easter.
"How can we not be happy that newcomers are here?" asks Alvord. "The point is to not make people feel guilty for not being there the rest of the year."
Guilt, however, is a major factor for the part-time Roman Catholic worshiper. In the Catholic faith, members are required to attend mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, such as Easter and Christmas, unless health, job or weather does not permit.
Given this obligation, and the fact that there are a number of Catholics who do not adhere to the rules, says the Rev. Frederick Bloom of St. Elizabeth's parish in Rockville, "I don't make an issue of it. It would be foolish for me to lambaste them from the pulpit.
"If coming to church is a pleasant experience for them and they're treated kindly, they are more likely to come back. They don't need to be scolded."
As Eick points out, "One of the great strengths and dangers of the church is that it is a very tender, vulnerable and emotional part of ourselves. When we tap into that positively, it's strong.
"But when it goes bad, church problems can leave a heavy memory."
One Northwest Washington woman, who "fell back" in her religion after a "long and bitter struggle," says she attends her husband's Protestant service because "he wants me to." But it isn't the same, she says.
"As a child I would go to the midnight mass, one of the loveliest times I can remember. We sang in Latin and it was so peaceful to just sit there.
"None of the feeling is there anymore. I miss it terribly."
One Fairfax mother of four teen-agers says she has been going to church "less and less" because the sermons and issues have been "so irrelevant." And yet she and her family plan to attend Christmas Eve services as they have for many years.
"Oh, yes, we'll be hypocritical," she says. "And it bothers me. But going to church on Christmas Eve is a tradition with our children."
But what message do parents give their children when the family goes to church just on the holidays?
The Rev. Adrianne Carr, mother and newly ordained minister at the United Church of Christ in Rockville, says it is an ambiguous message. And yet, she "can't quarrel with the fact" that she has "very dear friends who only go to church for holidays and yet are raising their children beautifully.
"Church is an enhancing dimension," says Carr, "but if parents are consciously giving their children moral messages throughout other aspects of life, that is good."
Carr warns infrequent worshipers that their teen-age children may eventually rebel and refuse to go to church on the holiday. The same holds true for families that go regularly, she says.
"You can't force it," says Carr. "Teens have to come to terms alone."
The Rev. Patricia Thomas, associate rector at St. Columba's Episcopal Church in Northwest Washington, says she believes that parents who limit their worship to the holidays are giving their children the equivocal message that "going to church is not very important because we don't do it regularly. And yet they are also saying that this singular day of worship is important."
At least, she says, "Worshiping on a holiday is a signal to the child that there is something different in the parents' life," and that they have the option to make that choice in their adult years.
The crux, however, says Thomas, is that "the church is not just a shot of medicine to the soul. It's a sharing of the community. And they are weakening the community."
When the Rev. Leonard Freeman faces the "congregation" on Christmas morning he will look out at a sea of strangers, for he is the canon at the Washington National Cathedral, where thousands of worshipers choose to celebrate Christmas in a dramatically beautiful and powerful setting.
Though Freeman's congregation of "mainly newcomers and visitors" is unique from neighborhood congregations, he is adamant about the value of "the regularity of worship life" and defines Christianity, or religion, as "a group function, not an individual experience.
"Worshiping regularly is like a kiss in a relationship," says Freeman. "If there is always a peck on the cheek when saying good-bye at the door, and that kiss stopped happening, the relationship would get strained."
Carr expressed this same "feeling a sense of loss" for worshipers who can "only relate emotionally at one or two times a year.
"But I'm optimistic," says Carr. "I want to say to these people, we will be here next week, or the week thereafter. When you're ready for us, we're ready for you."