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As advent approaches, churches look for socially distant ways to celebrate the season

Advent begins on Sunday, Dec. 29.BillionPhotos.com - Fotolia

Sunday marks the beginning of the most unusual Advent in recent memory. With large gatherings discouraged and capacity limited due to COVID-19, churches in and around Newton are finding new ways to serve their communities this holiday season.

The biggest changes start with Christmas Eve, traditionally one of the most attended services for churches annually. This year, the program will look drastically different.

While Massachusetts reopening guidelines allow houses of worship to operate at 50 percent occupancy, many are opting to host Christmas services fully online. The ones that do hold in-person worship are getting creative in order to follow social distancing requirements.

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Nicholas Frega, pastoral associate at the Catholic Sacred Heart and Our Lady’s Collaborative in Newton, said his church has spent weeks preparing for worship this year, opening earlier Christmas Eve and requiring would-be churchgoers to reserve their spaces online in advance.

“Once we have this, we will then make a seating chart so our ushers know where to put these people,” Frega said in an interview. “This will allow us to maximize the number of people we can get in the church while maintaining distance.”

For parishioners without access to the web, Frega said the Collaborative also will have a phone line for reservations. Door registration, however, will not be available.

“We would have more people than we could accommodate, and that’s not a conversation we think is fair to anyone,” Frega said. “So everyone is required to pre-register.”

Reservoir Church in Cambridge, whose congregants come from Newton and across the Boston area, has not been hosting in-person services and will stay online throughout Advent season, a decision which senior pastor Steve Watson said was largely driven by the demographic they serve.

“Elders, African American, Latino, working-class communities have been hit hardest, and that’s significant numbers of our church,” Watson said in an interview.

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Seeing how his congregation has embraced virtual community has been “downright inspiring,” Watson said, especially as his church works to preserve the wonder of the season for kids in the congregation.

“We are aware that, for kids, Christmas can be a magical time, but we don’t gather kids very much anymore,” Watson said. So the church has been sending small Nativity sets for families to put together at home.

“That can be a pretty magical and beautiful time to explore that mystery, that belief in our faith,” he said.

Advent is also traditionally a season for public service, and churches across Newton have been finding new avenues to volunteer during the pandemic, including Boston Chinese Evangelical Church, which has campuses in Chinatown and Newton.

Ken Liu, pastor of the English-speaking congregation at the church’s location in Newton, said both campuses have opened their facilities for service opportunities.

“In Chinatown, we’ve been partnering with Boston Public Schools to do some grab-n-go breakfast and lunch meal plans,” Liu said in an interview. “In Newton, we’ve been running blood drives; there’s a shortage since most of the public spaces that normally do blood drives have been shut down.”

As for the city of Newton, Liu said the church is using social media to help identify specific needs in the surrounding community.

“There’s a grassroots effort called Newton Neighbors Helping Neighbors, it’s a Facebook group, they’ve been pretty active and we keep track and try to do what we can to pitch in and help as a church,” Liu said. “Through the pandemic, the needs are definitely more apparent.”

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At StoryHeights Church in Newton Upper Falls, pitching in can look like tinsel and mistletoe.

“One of the mothers, she’s a single mom in our community that has been going through cancer treatments, and she has a young son,” said operations manager Victoria Barry. “So we’re going to decorate her house, hanging up lights, putting up decorations and things like that outside.”

And while you won’t find Santa Claus anywhere in the Bible, don’t be surprised if you catch him chilling with the pastor at StoryHeights church this Christmas.

“We have a contactless, distanced pictures-with-Santa planned for members of our own community,” Barry said in an interview. “A lot of that has been canceled this year, so we’re looking for safe, tangible ways to make a difference in people’s lives and bring them some joy and hope this season.”

Joel Lau can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.