By Ali Bauman

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – Like most holiday traditions this year, Christmas Eve Mass is scaling down because of COVID.

But parishes across our area are improvising, making sure worshippers can still celebrate at a safe social distance, CBS2’s Ali Bauman reported Thursday.

It sounded like Christmas Eve at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. But instead of filling the pews, most people were watching the service from home.

The evening service allowed 25% capacity on a first come, first serve basis.

Erika Rowe of New Jersey said she attends every year.

“It is a little different, but it doesn’t change the faith,” she said.

There’s typically a lottery system for a spot at St. Patrick’s famed Midnight Mass, which has drawn thousands in past years. It’s usually standing room only. But not this year. Worshippers are being encouraged to watch a live stream of the service instead.

Still, a steady trickle of people walked through the cathedral Thursday, CBS2’s Christina Fan reported. Some headed inside to light a candle, others stayed to attend the noon Mass at limited capacity.

Families said it’s been their tradition for generations.

“My dad always used to do this,” one young boy said.

“And his dad passed away six years ago. So we used to come and light a candle in remembrance of his mother. So now we bring him to light a candle for his remembrance,” the boy’s mother said.

COVID restrictions couldn’t stop the Clacen family from making their annual trip from New Jersey, even if it meant just a few minutes inside.

“I used to come here with his father before he was born. And then after [his father] passed away, I just made sure that he always remembered and did it,” said Nancy Clacen.

“Whenever I light a candle, I think about my dad and all my worries just melt away,” said John Clacen.

Watch Christina Fan’s Report:

The soothing sounds of the organ and the calming voices of the choir brought peace to some at the end of a tumultuous year.

“Just being inside and being a part of it. I disappear into what it’s all really about,” said Joyce Keating

“I’m hoping for everything to get back to normal eventually and just for everyone to stay safe,” Katie Kaplan said.

Some New Yorkers said being able to get a seat during a Christmas Eve Mass at St. Patrick’s was an unexpected result of the pandemic. But as they sat in the pews, all they wanted was for life to get back to normal.

“Peace and health for everyone, all over the world,” said Amy Fletcher.

CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

It’s been a particularly hard month for Father Patrick Malloy and all of Saint John the Divine in Harlem.

“To pretend that this isn’t difficult would do no one any good,” Father Malloy said.

Last week, during their Christmas concert, a gunman opened fire at the front doors of the cathedral. No one besides the gunman was injured.

“More now than ever, I think certainly those of us here at the cathedral realize how much we need one another. But I don’t think we’re alone. I think people are really hungry for connection,” said Malloy.

MORE: NYPD: Gunman Fatally Shot By Police After Opening Fire Outside NYC Cathedral

“These are the shortest days of the year and what we say, even though the night seems like it’s getting longer and longer, we say there’s light coming. There’s light in the darkness and I think that’s the message of Christmas, and I think that’s what we have to hold on to right now,” he said.

This Christmas Eve, the cathedral joined together on Zoom for service and song.

That’s how Middle Collegiate Church celebrated the night, too.

The historic church in the East Village was destroyed by a fire earlier in December.

Despite their heartache, the community connected in song on Christmas Eve.

MORE: Fire Officials: Electrical Problem Sparked Blaze At Historic Middle Collegiate Church

In addition to virtual services, some churches on Long Island got creative by holding drive-in masses in parks.

At Point Lookout Town Park, families parked their cars in every other spot to watch the service broadcasted onto a big screen.

“Nobody wants to be turning people away from the church on Christmas, or anytime for that matter. So, that was the thing that kind of weighed more than anything,” Father Brian Barr said.

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CBS2’s Christina Fan contributed to this report.

Ali Bauman