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AMY SCOTT: Retailers aren't the only ones counting on the Christmas rush. December is high season for churchgoing. And while year-end isn't exactly make-or-break time for churches the way it is for stores, it is a key time to fill up those coffers. Ashley Milne-Tyte reports.
ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE: Tonight pews all over America will be bursting with churchgoers eager to feel the Christmas spirit. Here in Manhattan, St. Patrick's Cathedral will be particularly busy. New York's Catholic Archdiocese says congregations everywhere tend to swell to twice the usual size at this time of year. And that means a lot more money in the collection plate.
The Episcopalians say the same thing. Father Jerry Keucher heads finance and operations for the Episcopal Diocese of New York. He says Christmas collection-plate offerings make up about 3 percent of the year's operating budget. Still ...
FATHER JERRY KEUCHER: The church has not that many big impulse shoppers. The church has a very brand-loyal customer base that pays all year long.
In other words, parishioners who pledge. They fill out a card, stating the amount they'll give the church the following year. Some send weekly checks. Others pay monthly, or quarterly. Like businessman Jay Bowman, visiting St. Patrick's Cathedral one recent afternoon. He says he's a man of regular habits.
JAY BOWMAN: We do contribute a little bit extra at the holidays, at Christmas, but generally do so throughout the year.
But sometimes people get behind. Clifford Harkness is treasurer of Christ Church, an Episcopal church in South Brooklyn. He says December is when he finds himself chasing people up for money they've pledged, but haven't yet given.
CLIFFORD HARKNESS: I do the best I can, but there's a limit to what you can do. If you yell at people they get angry and don't want to do anything. You have to be gentle and cajoling.
Harkness says by year's end he receives virtually all the money he's been expecting. Money he needs to help pay for everything from the church's utility bills and the priest's salary to Christmas decorations. Father Keucher says it's a tricky business bugging people for money because there's no obligation to give.
KEUCHER: These are voluntary gifts. They are not legal contracts. They are good-faith estimates of what the person thought they wanted to do at the beginning of the year.
If someone doesn't fulfill their pledge, he says, it's often because they're unhappy with something their church is doing. Or they're having financial difficulties.
On a cold, clear day last week most visitors to St. Patrick's didn't look like they were having too many financial problems. Shoppers laden with bags moved easily between the cathedral's foyer and the sidewalks of Fifth Avenue.
Woman 1: I'm a tourist, I'm sorry.
Woman 2: We live in Jersey -- we're a bunch of heathens who live there!
With retail sales in a slump this Christmas, stores are hoping for more of that type of weather to keep shoppers coming. The church has similar hopes. Father Jerry Keucher of New York's Episcopal Diocese:
KEUCHER: So while many people like white Christmases, most clergy don't want it to be very, very white. A little dusting would be OK. But not something that would keep people home.
He says Christmas is a wonderful time to offer spiritual succor to the many -- and to end the year in the black.
In New York, I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.