As a child I adored the holiday season: the wonderful carol singing, the excitement and sharing and happiness that abounded all around us, the excited and carefully considered selection of gifts for friends and family, the decorating of house and tree with family, the thrill of christmas morning, the wonderful smells and tastes and gatherings for the cooking, watching "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and getting a bit sniffly at the happy ending where the Grinch finally understands christmas is about sharing and community rather than receiving loot… I loved it all. I was fortunate, I suppose, in that my parents were wise enough to emphasize the giving and sharing over the receiving, and to explain Santa Claus as a spirit of the season who could be embodied by anyone who felt that same joy in the giving of gifts. Because of that emotional generosity, my enjoyment of christmas never took a hit, and I came into adulthood still loving the festivities associated with this time of year.

My enjoyment of the season has unfortunately taken rather a beating in the last decade or two — it's hard to gleefully sing along with a favorite christmas carol when your housemate is snarling about how much carols suck, for example — but I do still try to celebrate the solstice in all its many and wonderful forms. In particular I like going places where there are groups of people celebrating, especially if they're singing christmas carols. Due to the wonderful parties my family put on, I know a little bit of the harmonies from many of the carols, and I like feeling like I'm adding a small bit of beauty to a lovely group effort towards joy.

Last night I attended a holiday celebration put on by Bethel Church. Since the event was free, I was happy to give it a try; it was titled "Christmas Spectacular: The Greatest Time of Year." Admittedly, I was taking a calculated risk — churches often want to hit you over the head with the "Jesus died for you!" bat — but it was supposedly a large multimedia affair, so I hopefully guessed there'd be a large number of carols we could sing along to. Also, I had no doubt the church would be nicely decorated (which I also enjoy), since not only do churches usually go all out at this time of year, but the ticket we'd received was very professionally produced, with lovely graphics and really nice, clean layout. So, dragging along a good-natured friend, off we went.

All the churches I've attended for any length of time with my family felt very community oriented — I'd guess they usually topped out at about 150 to 200 participants. That approximate number is how large gatherer-hunter tribes tend to grow under optimum conditions; past that point they tend to splinter off into smaller tribelets that go off and grow on their own. Anthropologists have determined through studies that the human brain can organize and remember about that many individuals as relatively-well-known friends and family, so I'm not surprised to see that number in the churches.

Bethel Church, however, was huge! I think there were about 200 seated just in the section we were in, and there were five more such sections — on the ground floor. Upstairs there was another huge number of seats, and the place was packed to the gills by the time the event started. While we waited we could watch two large screens put up front, and amongst the various slides that were flashed on-screen (including silly christmas themed jokes, word scrambles, and trivia) were photos of the various pastors and their spouses.

I found this perplexingly interesting for a variety of reasons. My initial surprise was at how many pastors there were. There was a pastor emeritus, two pastors for children, a pastor or two for young people and sports activities, two pastors for media, another pastor or two for I-can't-remember-what-else… and they were all male, always listed as "Pastor [male name] and [female name] [surname]." Interestingly, the male pastor was always on the left hand side of the photo — which, combined with how the names were sorted, gave me a kind of "I'm first because I'm more important" feel from the men. Wait, I take that back — there was one married couple who were both pastors, for the children. That's the one photo I recall where the female was on the left — but the male's name still came first, even though they were listed as "Pastors [male name] and [female name] [surname]."

Enough about the female-male power balance for now; I went for the holiday celebration, after all. The church was beautifully decorated, as I'd hoped it would be. There was long, beribboned evergreen bunting hung plentifully, with brightly colored christmas tree balls to set them off; there were many brightly lit, colorful christmas trees; there was lots of snow and holiday-themed prettiness. The people were friendly and happy, the kids were barely on this side of explosive excitement, the pews were comfortable, and I was happy we'd come early so we could be there. Admittedly, I'd never been to a church where they had police directing traffic so everyone could get safely into the parking lot, but since the ticket had announced the doors opened about an hour before the show, we figured we should arrive early — which was a good thing.

The show itself had a small orchestra, a large choir, a children's choir, several soloists (both vocal and instrumental), and a dance troop. The light system was amazing (although my companion, who was a theatre major in college, was aghast at how many missed cues there were), the sound system was quite powerful (we could clearly hear everyone), and the building facilities were excellent — at no point was I too cold or too hot. They started with one of the pastors singing a cute little rendition of a christmas carol about turning off your cell phone. He was courageous enough to sing it a cappella as well.

Then there was a musical introduction with the choir and orchestra and a little stage pantomime, where they pulled out all the stops. On the stage there were kids racing back and forth being excited with fake snowballs and a snowman, adults cheerfully greeting each other, the dance troup cavorting happily with brightly wrapped gifts, an apparent homeless person being given a hot drink from the little mobile coffee stand and being taken off by a well dressed and friendly seeming man, fake snow swirling down from the ceiling… I had to laugh, since so much of it is incredibly iconic now, especially in snowless Silicon Valley. Further, I have my doubts that anyone in that church took in any homeless for the season — I know I'd be too scared to do so. Still, I could be wrong! It'd be nice if I was.

There was a reading of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" by what I think was the main pastor, with sound effects performed by volunteers from the crowd. That was good for several laughs, both at the occasional missed cue, and for the sheer silliness and good humor. There was some nice harmony between two women soloists for one song, and there was a cute little rendition of "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers," where they had folks dressed up as the dolls and soldiers dancing around on stage. There was a song called "Gingerbread Man," again with the orchestra and two dancers, and sung by a recording of the Cookie Monster. The kids' choir sang "I'm Gonna E-mail Santa," which I would guess is always a winner with parents. The song had the children singing and following the lead of the woman director standing just in front of the stage, cueing the kids as to what hand gestures to make as they sang. There were cute media effects with that one, too — as if the camera were watching someone's screen as they actually typed to Santa.

The sing-along part of the carols was disappointingly short, though. I know the church's focus is of necessity on the mythology surrounding the birth of their deity, but I was still a bit bemused that only sections of a few carols were chosen and displayed on the big overhead screens for the crowd to follow. Those few choices were also, I thought, rather heavy-handed, focusing solely on Jesus' birth, the world's instant joy, and how he then effectively conquers all nations. I was utterly bemused by one of the skits they did, as well, called "Christmas Clanger Caper," which was just a take-off on a noir style detective with some apparently pointless wordplay: the "clean copper clappers were copped from the closet (where they'd been put by Claudia the Cleaner) by Clyde from Cleveland" — that sort of thing. I guess it was supposed to be a mental break from all the holiday music, perhaps? Not sure we really needed it, though.

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