As she gazed down from the pulpit, the Rev. Allyson Sawtell realized that her first Christmas Eve sermon wasn't going to fly.

Some of the faces before her were joyful. But many were lined with fatigue.One woman - whose husband had just moved in with a lover - sat with her children, weeping. A man who had recently put his mother in a nursing home wrestled with his emotions. A newly widowed woman looked stunned.

Even a few of the visitors seemed confused or apprehensive on that night a decade ago. The Rev. Sawtell thought: What brought them here?

"These feelings poured through me in a few seconds," said the Rev. Sawtell, who leads the ecumenical Parish Resource Center at St. Thomas Theological Seminary in Denver. "I thought, `Gee, I'm about to preach happy, happy, joy, joy to these people and there's all that pain out there.' "

She is convinced that today's congregations must have something dynamic to say to those who return to church in this overloaded season or those who bring new needs into the pews.

"There just has to be more to this season than what's under the tree and what's in it for me," the Rev. Sawtell said.

"Christmas - at least what the Bible actually has to say about Christmas - is about the light shining in the darkness. It's about feeling real joy when things are rushed, confused and painful. I think that's a pretty good message for these crazy days."

It's a truth known to church-life researchers as well as to pastors, church-school teachers and ushers - the two big seasons on the Christian calendar pull different flocks of newcomers into church.

At Easter, inactive and apathetic church members pack the pews. But Christmas is the season when people who may not have darkened the door of a church in a decade or more often choose to show up for candlelight services, chasing the shadowy images of their past joys.

"The people we see coming back at this time of year are not neophytes," said Dave Thomas, an expert in Catholic parish life who teaches at Regis College. A decade ago, he was a consultant for the Vatican's global conference on modern families.

"They're usually lapsed Catholics or angry Catholics or people who had bad things happen to them and they wandered away from the church."

"It can be like a fisherman seeding the pews with bait. You know a few new people are going to be out there at this time of year. You need to hook them and then give them a safe place to fit in."

For many people, according to local and national experts in church life, the simple pleasures of Christmas vanish because of painful problems that are easy to spot but almost impossible to solve.

In many homes, interfaith or interchurch marriages have made it all but impossible to reach easy agreements over how the season should be observed. Family reunions are becoming less frequent as people move away from their hometowns. And in millions of homes, Christmas rituals, reunions and travel schedules are complicated by an even more painful reality - divorce.

"It's the great problem of our age that no one seems to want to talk about - the pain of divorce at Christmas," Thomas said. "The church doesn't know what to do about it. So we often leave people alone with their pain."