NEW YORK — At St. Patrick's Cathedral, churchgoers now must keep their distance, with seating allowed only every few rows.

That made for an unusual amount of room for the faithful attending Christmas Mass on Friday morning — one more example of how the COVID-19 surge transformed so many holiday traditions this year.

What You Need To Know

  • Attendance was sparse Friday at St. Patrick's Cathedral, which typically attracts big crowds on Christmas

  • Seating is allowed only every few rows in the church, and there is no hand-holding during prayer or exchange of peace greetings

  • Other churches only live-streamed Christmas services or required advance reservations

"As joyful as we are this Christmas morning, we’ve got to admit, I'm afraid, that this year Christmas is rather different," Cardinal Timothy Dolan said during his sermon. "Not quite the way we usually celebrate, right?"

While the crowds were smaller than usual, there were plenty who felt drawn at the cathedral. Katiana Skyler of Queens was once a regular parishioner. Friday, Skyler came to retrieve holy water to heal an ailing grandmother, who is sick with COVID-19.

"I come to this church all the time, but since the pandemic happened, I stopped going," Skyler said. "So I had to come back."

Maia Dragowski of New Jersey said her family ultimately chose not to deviate from its annual ritual: lighting a votive candle for her great-grandmother inside the cathedral.

"We didn't know if we were going to go this year at all," she said, "and that would have kind of ruined everything if we didn't go."

Aside from distancing and mask-wearing, St. Patrick's and other churches have done away with the holding of hands during the Our Father prayer and the exchange of peace greetings.

Some churches in the city didn't allow in-person attendance at all on Christmas, and live-streamed services instead. Others limited attendance on Christmas Day by requiring advance reservations or tickets.

Cardinal Dolan put a positive spin on the need to scale things back this year.

"Maybe," he said, "Christmas 2020 we can rediscover a message, a basic lesson of Christmas: The simpler, the better."


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