They curled into a warm circle inside the church yesterday morning, giggling about how baby Jesus would be played by a girl this year and chuckling over the time the organ broke in the middle of Christmas Eve services.
There are certain secrets shared inside bustling churches in the hours before Christmas services. While other members of the congregation are out shopping and baking, volunteers dash about the sanctuaries hauling poinsettias or double-checking the stitching on the shepherd and the king and the donkey costumes for the reenactment of nativity scenes.
At Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church in Northwest Washington and at houses of worship across the region yesterday, each branch of holly, each glowing candlelight procession was orchestrated by folks who prepare the churches for Christmas Eve services.
At Metropolitan Memorial, a church designed in the French Gothic tradition, they tended to every detail, right down to dusting the towering stained glass and fussing over the sequence of choir songs.
"It gets totally crazy when you have the family thing and the day-job thing," said Mary Golladay, a government statistician who lives in Friendship Heights and directs the nativity scene. "We do it, though, because it's important that we do it well. Christmas is not always a happy time for people and we want to make it a nice service."
Many large Protestant churches have several Christmas Eve services throughout the night but are closed on Christmas Day. Catholic churches usually have Christmas Day Masses. Whatever the schedule, all need a loyal band of helpers to place every wreath and check on drooping flowers.
Preparing the church for Christmas is a ritual almost as old as the holiday itself, said William B. Lawrence, senior minister at Metropolitan Memorial. It's a special chance to give people a peaceful but festive setting to celebrate the birth of Christ.
"Getting the church ready is both a practical and a theological and spiritual time," Lawrence added, as he watched volunteers sweep the church and tune guitars and flutes for the Christmas Eve services.
In these busy times, the number of volunteers for Christmas can soar and sag with each year. But there are always those who return.
"I had my hiatus from the church when I was working 60 hours a week," said Georgie Mundell, 71, a retired sixth-grade teacher from Bethesda who is on the church's flower committee. "When it came to Sunday, I just wanted to flop down. When someone asked me to bake a cake, I would say, 'A cake I don't even bake for my own family.' "
But work slowed down and Mundell found herself drawn back to the church and happy to work diligently in the days before Christmas.
There were Christmas Eve services scheduled for last night at the church, which is at 3401 Nebraska Ave.
A 5 p.m. service features a nativity performance by the youth of the church. At the 11 p.m. service, there is a formal candlelight procession with the singing of "O Come, All Ye Faithful." At midnight, the organ chimes 12 times and there is a cascade of bells--and more candles.
All of this takes work. So yesterday, Lawrence and Golladay and Mundell gathered to get ready.
His hair disheveled and his shirt askew, Lawrence smiled as he poked his head through a golden robe. The robe was for the person playing the angel Gabriel, who tells Mary she will have a child.
Lawrence walked slowly into the center of the church and stood still for a moment as streams of lavender light from stained glass made the robe shimmer and his face glow.
"Nice, very nice," said Golladay.
After getting the flowers ready, the minister and his helpmates sat down again, laughing about how volunteers are often so busy that they don't have time to eat dinner. On Christmas Eve, they usually end up munching on crackers and packaged cheese between services.
Not all church service arrangements come off without a hitch. Mundell recalled how volunteers used to place candles on the ledges above the pews. They scrapped this decoration because the melting wax sometimes dripped on members of the congregation.
"We put wreaths there now," she said.
Finally, the helpers were ready for a break. Soon the congregation would arrive for the first service, largely unaware of the hard work and quiet secrets of those who prepare the church for Christmas.
CAPTION: Georgie Mundell, left, Paul Cherry and Mary Golladay prepare Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church in Northwest Washington for Christmas Eve.