Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, celebrates Christmas Eve Mass Dec. 24, 2020, at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. (CNS photo/Victor Alemán, Angelus News)
Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, celebrates Christmas Eve Mass Dec. 24, 2020, at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. (CNS photo/Victor Alemán, Angelus News)
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Bob Cavanaugh certainly experienced a white Christmas in 2020, but not the kind crooners sing about in the popular song by that name.

Restrictions to control the COVID-19 pandemic forced him, along with hundreds of others at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Medina, Ohio, to grab outdoor chairs and swat snowflakes during a snowstorm in December in order to attend one of the most solemn Masses of the year.

"Outdoor Mass, 26 degrees, in a snowstorm, masked, with about 400 others, and we could actually sing with social distancing as we were not indoors," Cavanaugh wrote to Catholic News Service via Twitter Dec. 29, along with a photo of an outdoor altar in the distance. "Cold and messy, awesome and beautiful at the same time."

Christmas season in 2020 led to many adaptions around the world for Catholics like Cavanaugh who wanted to be physically present for holiday liturgies. Some, because of concerns about health or age, missed Christmas Mass for the first time, while others had to adjust to dramatically changed customs and practices -- including Mass in a church parking lot in the snow.

In Ohio, it snowed 5-6 inches before Mass, Cavanaugh said. While some sat outside in chairs, others listened from inside their cars and as others scrambled to make the Mass happen for those longing to take part in the liturgy. They brushed away snow that accumulated on a portable altar as the incense set the smoke alarm off in the youth office used as an outdoor sacristy.

"Liturgy can be messy," said Cavanaugh of outdoor Mass in the winter -- a necessity to keep large numbers from gathering indoors and subsequently fueling contagion.

In the tropical climate of El Salvador, Discalced Carmelite Father Jose Fredi Arteaga Figueroa held a figure of the baby Jesus before the sparsely assembled congregation gathered at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish in San Salvador for a Christmas Day Mass.

Typically, Mass-goers line up at Christmas to kiss the figurine representing the newborn baby Jesus but Father Arteaga instead instructed them this year to motion a kiss or a touch from afar toward the figure.

It is strange how things have been modified, said the Salvadoran Father Arteaga, who survived the coronavirus after contracting COVID-19 when he was in Spain at the start of the pandemic. But it's also strange to walk down the street and see people masked and distanced.

Church services are not exempt from the changes the pandemic has demanded, he said, noting that even the "lavabo," the ritual of the washing of hands for priests, now includes hand sanitizer instead of water.

For some, the lack of singing indoors at some churches led to much sadness, as did spats with those who didn't want to wear a mask or didn't want to use it properly during services.

Franciscan Friar of the Atonement Father Jim Gardiner, who celebrates Masses in the Washington and Maryland area, said, however, that many Mass-goers were genuinely grateful just to be able to attend services during a tough holiday season, particularly as the rising number of those infected with COVID-19 kept rising.

"Most people that I encountered in the parish where I help out on weekends seemed genuinely grateful for the opportunity to assemble. Several actually mentioned the restrictions -- like social distancing and wearing masks -- as a small sacrifice to make to ensure one's own safely and the safety of others," he said in a Dec. 29 email with CNS.

"I found it a bit difficult to get into the Christmas spirit this year and I said as much in a homily the Sunday before Christmas. What's difficult is not being able to judge reactions from the congregation. I'm glad that Christmas has an octave and includes such feasts as Holy Family, Epiphany and Baptism of the Lord."

Father Arteaga said those who attended Christmas Masses this year seemed to be doing so with a little more intensity than in the past.

"My perception was that people experienced the Eucharist with more hope, more faith," he said.

El Salvador's tropical climate, unlike Ohio's, was more favorable to outdoor seating for the overflow crowd that arrived to mark the birth of Jesus in the country whose name in Spanish, "the savior," honors Christ.

Staying and keeping others safe has become an important part of gathering for Mass, Father Arteaga said. So much so that a new ministry was one of the adaptations born out of the pandemic. The urban parish where he serves assembled a protocol ministry made up of people under 60. Though some feelings were hurt initially among older parishioners, the focus has remained on keeping older Mass-goers and members of the faith community as safe as possible, he said. Christmas Masses, with the increased attendance they bring, presented an opportunity to reinforce some of the new practices.

"The motive was to protect our brothers and sisters," he said.

Like Father Arteaga, Father Gardiner believes that if anything, the pandemic has brought believers to a point of deep reflection and spiritual reassessment, since the religious holiday didn't focus this year, by-and-large, on the hustle and bustle of pre-Christmas parties or crowded shopping malls.

"Something needs to be done to remind even the faithful -- and, yes, even ourselves -- about what Christmas is all about," he said. "And, second, that this is the time to do it because COVID-19 has leveled the playing field against a once seemingly invincible secularism and commercialism."

Even as many have found themselves longing for Christmases past, saying "it's not the same this year," Father Gardiner asked: "But, has it ever been the same?"

Father Arteaga said it is important to listen to what God is trying to tell us during the pandemic and to ask why some miss Mass.

He said that shortly after El Salvador's churches began reopening for services in late August, after being closed for five months, he wanted to offer the congregation something to think about when they told him how much they missed attending in person.

"What is it that I have been missing? Coming to the Eucharist and receiving Communion only, as if it's something magical?" he told them to ask themselves. "Or have I missed gathering with my brothers and sisters? Because that is the Eucharist, too. It's the community. It is the church that makes the Eucharist possible."

God, in the midst of the pandemic, is trying to tell us something, he said, and the pope has said as much in saying that from this pandemic, "we will either come out better or worse."

"I hope that our wish to return to 'normality' isn't simply a wish to return to what we were before, but instead it will lead us to a new image of humanity, a new conscience, one that is clear about what we are doing in this world ... I hope that this experience of being distanced helps us to become more conscious of the fundamental value of what it means to be a community," Father Arteaga said.

In Ohio, that's part of what drove the faith community to brave the snowstorm and gather, even with obstacles, Cavanaugh said.

"Our pastor, Father Tony Sejba, insisted on attempting to have Mass outdoors, for the sense of community we all sorely miss" said Cavanaugh. "We thought the horrible weather would keep people away, but far from it. People are created for relationship with God, and with each other, and many aren't getting enough of either one, the way this pandemic is going right now."

He said that the families braving "the cold, the darkness and the snow is a testament to our collective need for a Savior, and each other, and the fact (that) He is alive among us and in each one of us!"

Snow had accumulated on the altar again toward the end of Mass, and Cavanaugh, with his mask soaking wet and frozen along the edges, said he had one thought: "What a mess!"

And yet he noticed that no one had left.

"Snow was falling gently like in a movie, and all were singing along beautifully." he said. "I closed my eyes, joined in the song, and thought to myself, this might be one of the most beautiful moments of liturgy I've ever experienced."