No Churchgoing Christmas for the First Family

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Barry Williams / Getty

The Senate vote on final passage of health reform almost scuttled their plans, but it looks like the First Family will still make it to Hawaii for Christmas. They've had a whirlwind holiday season so far, starting with the lighting of the National Christmas Tree, through hosting more than 50,000 people for 27 parties and open houses, and ending with a visit by the First Lady, Malia and Sasha, and the family's dog Bo, to deliver cookies to the Children's National Medical Center. The Obamas have also started their own holiday traditions in their new home, adding a Christmas wishing tree to the decorations festooning the White House.

But there's one common Christmas practice not on the First Family's schedule: a visit to Christmas Eve church services.

Church, in fact, has been a surprisingly tough issue for the Obamas. They resigned their membership with Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago in 2008 after Obama renounced the church's controversial former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. And while the First Family intended to find a local church to attend when they moved to Washington, concerns about crowds and displacing regular worshippers has prevented them from finding a new religious home during their first year here.

The Obamas have attended Sunday services in Washington three times this year — once at the predominantly African-American 19th Street Baptist Church, and twice at St. John's Episcopal Church across Lafayette Square from the White House. Asked at Tuesday's White House briefing whether the First Family is still searching for a local church to join, press secretary Robert Gibbs responded: "The President has attended fairly regularly up at Camp David a church that he's comfortable in and has enjoyed attending."

The church at Camp David is Evergreen Chapel, a nondenominational body currently led by Chaplain Lieut. Carey Cash. Each week, regardless of whether the President is on-site, Evergreen Chapel holds Christian services open to the nearly 400 military personnel and staff at Camp David, as well as their families. The Bush family spent eight straight Christmases at Camp David, in large part because of the retreat's privacy, and were regular attenders of the chapel's candlelight service on Christmas Eve. Other Presidents and their families have opted to stay in Washington for the holiday. The Clintons traditionally went to midnight mass at the Washington National Cathedral and woke up in the White House on Christmas morning before heading south for vacation. President Reagan also remained in Washington over Christmas — reportedly so members of the Secret Service could be near their families — although Reagan didn't venture out to a local church service.

The Obamas have celebrated Christmas in Hawaii, where the President grew up, nearly every year since the girls were born. But while Obama can still visit his favorite shaved ice joint and body-surfing spots, he doesn't have a childhood church home to attend. His mother wasn't a churchgoer, and Obama writes in "Dreams of My Father" that his grandparents took him to church infrequently.

The one church in Hawaii with which Obama does have a family connection is unlikely to be the place where the First Family would worship on Christmas Eve. As a child, Obama occasionally attended Sunday school classes at the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu, and his family held a memorial service there for his grandmother last Christmas. Conservative critics were quick to point out that the First Unitarian Church has a controversial history — in 1969, the church offered sanctuary to servicemen who refused to go to Vietnam. The refuge was brief, however, as military police invaded church grounds to arrest the soldiers.

During the Obamas' visit to the Children's National Medical Center this week, one young patient asked Sasha Obama whether anything would change for their first celebration of Christmas as the First Family. "I don't think anything will be very different," Sasha said. She may be right. The Obamas spent a quiet Christmas in Hawaii last year, staying in their rented house on Christmas Eve and visiting with soldiers stationed at Marine Corps Base Hawaii on Christmas Day. They may miss singing carols and reading the Christmas story in the book of Luke, at least in a formal church setting, but after entertaining 50,000 house guests, all the First Family must really want for Christmas is some peace and quiet.