Carol French remembers an Easter service when her Methodist pastor strode to the pulpit and said: "Merry Christmas and have a happy new year! " Seeing the congregation's puzzled...

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DALLAS — Carol French remembers an Easter service when her Methodist pastor strode to the pulpit and said: “Merry Christmas and have a happy new year!”

Seeing the congregation’s puzzled looks, he added: “I won’t see some of you again before Christmas, so I thought I had better greet you now.”

That was years ago, but the pastor was poking fun at a still-familiar group — the people who go to church only at Christmas and Easter.

“C&Es,” as they’re known, account for big holiday surges at churches.

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All Saints Catholic Church in Dallas, for example, said attendance will more than double, to about 5,000, for the six Masses on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Vista Ridge United Methodist Church in Lewisville, Texas, usually attracts about 450 worshippers on Sundays. It had 1,100 last Christmas Eve.

C&Es have been around as long as the collection plate. But the way churches greet them is changing. Today, few pastors would give C&Es the ribbing that French recalled.

“We’d be appalled if they did,” said the Rev. Joan LaBarr, director of communications for the North Texas conference of the United Methodist Church.

Instead, most churches view Christmas as an opportunity, a chance to gently encourage infrequent attendees to come back soon — maybe even before Easter — and get more involved.

With that in mind, some Methodists have instituted a “Home for Christmas” campaign. Newspaper ads and mailings invite folks who aren’t regular attendees to candlelight Christmas Eve services, a Methodist tradition. In addition, churches are encouraging congregants to make Christmas visitors feel at home.

“The idea is to develop a culture of welcoming,” LaBarr said.

Why do some visit only at the holidays?

“I think we all have a deep need for spirituality,” said the Rev. Lisa Marshall, associate pastor at Vista Ridge. “Day to day, it’s easy to forget, but the holidays bring that out.”

The Rev. Derrick Wright, pastor of Hamilton Park United Methodist, said his mostly African-American congregation has some C&Es as well as a lot of “Ms” — people who attend only on Mother’s Day.

“Mothers are everything in our tradition,” he said.

The Methodists’ “Home for Christmas” campaign was expanded this year to include ads for an African-American tradition, the Watch Night service on New Year’s Eve. Hamilton Park hosts a late-night gathering in which members take inventory of the past year and make plans for the coming year.

“It’s a way to pull [Christmas visitors] in again a week later,” Wright said.

Many ministers tweak their holiday sermons to make them more accessible to C&Es.

“I am mindful that we are likely to have people here who seldom attend church,” said the Rev. Charles Hubbard, pastor of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Garland, Texas. “I try to stay away from theological language that would be familiar to folks who attend regularly but might be lost on those who don’t.”

The right sermon can make all the difference, said Ken Flournoy, 56. For years, the former C&E “couldn’t recognize a sanctuary unless it had poinsettias or Easter lilies in it.”

Then, five years ago, he and his wife, Ginger, made a last-minute decision to visit Canyon Creek Presbyterian Church in Richardson, Texas, on Easter Sunday. The congregation was friendly and warm. Even though pews were packed, an usher found the couple a seat near the front.

The pastor’s sermon was so moving and so pertinent to their situation — Flournoy was unemployed at the time — that the couple broke down in tears afterward in the parking lot.

“That day I … became a Christian again,” he said. Now he’s a deacon and moderator of the church’s finance committee.

His advice to churches expecting an influx of C&Es: “Members have to be willing to get out of their comfort zone,” he said. “If you see someone you don’t recognize, go over and greet them and make them feel welcome.”

Even if Christmas visitors aren’t converted, ministers say, that hour or so in church can make a difference.

“You just never know what that one worship experience might do for a person’s life,” Wright said.