While full official figures will not be out for 12 months (the Church of England works on a 12-month collection cycle) anecdotal evidence and reports from throughout Staffordshire, the northern half of Shropshire and the north-western part of the Black Country suggests that more people than ever went to church over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The growth isn't restricted to any particular type of congregation and is being reported by churches of all styles of churchmanship from Anglo-Catholic to Evangelical across both rural and urban locations. The reported increases in Christmas Day attendance is even more encouraging because in 2005 Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, which traditionally sees attendances increase slightly.
Speaking before Christmas, the Bishop of Lichfield, the Rt Revd Jonathan Gledhill, urged worshippers to "turn up early to be sure of a good seat," adding: "The cathedral and many other of the 600 churches in the Lichfield Diocese have already been packed out for Advent Carol Services. Most people know that Christmas isn't really Christmas without worshipping the Christ child and will be making their way to one of the many different kinds of Christmas Carol Services to receive the best present of all, to pray for his peace in the world, and to join in the joy of Christmas."
Lichfield Cathedral saw significant attendance increases in all its Christmas services - with the Christmas Eve early evening services increasing from 1,000 to 1,100; and Midnight Mass more than doubling from 629 to 1,300. The Christmas Day services saw a 38 per cent increase to 700 people. Lichfield Cathedral holds its main Christmas Carol Service on Boxing Day and this year's attendance was up by 100 to 1,300.
The increase in attendance isn't restricted to the Cathedral and is replicated in parish churches throughout the diocese.
Leading the way was the Beckbury group of six rural parishes in Shropshire where 35 per cent of the total population of the parish turned up to worship on Christmas Day. The total attendance of 350 (out of a total population of just under 1,000) was an increase of 36% from the 2005 figures.
The Revd David Chantrey, Rector of the Six Parishes, said: "This is excellent news. Over a third of the population attended church here on Christmas Day this year. And the increase does not seem to be a flash in the pan. This is the largest attendance this decade, and since 2001 there has been a 54% increase in attendance at Christmas.
"I don't know why this increase has happened, but I am grateful to God for sending so many people to worship him at this special time of year. I am also grateful to all those in these Six Parishes who work with me in doing God's work here. It really has been a very happy Christmas this year."
The increase isn't restricted to rural parishes - at St Mary's Church in Bilston 70 people attended the Christmas Eve Midnight Communion service - more than doubling the 2005 attendance of 33.
The Revd Beth Leach, Team Vicar of St Mary's, said: "The Christmas Tree Festival definitely acted as an attraction for people and we had many comments about how much people had enjoyed coming. Many of the people at the Midnight service were new to St Mary's"
The increase in attendance was also evidenced in the north of the Diocese. At All Saint's Church in Madeley, near Crewe, there was standing room only for the Christmas Eve Christingle Service.
The Revd Barry Wilson, Vicar of Madeley, reported that: "Every seat was filled and people were sitting or standing in every available space in the church - including the chancel which was also full." The Christmas Eve midnight Eucharist service attracted 176 adults - considerably higher than the church's average attendance in the 120's for the Christmas Eve Midnight service.
Numerous reasons are being given for the dramatic increase in attendance. In Telford, St George's church introduced a new choir of around 15 children from St Georges Church of England School who came weekly to choir practice from the end of November to learn traditional carols with organist David Fisher. They led the worship at the Christmas Eve Carol service which saw attendance rise to around 350.
The Revd Peter Lawley, Vicar of St George's, said: "The children performed admirably, and behaved perfectly, and brought parents and family members with them. After the service each child received a certificate from David Fisher."
The Christmas story is about a new born baby, so it was quite appropriate that nine-day-old Charlotte Elizabeth, daughter of organist Chris Harris and his wife Trish, was the youngest of 36 people attending the Christmas Eve Family Praise service at St Peter's Church in Priorslee.
The Ecumenical Parish of St Andrew's, West Bromwich sustained its recent Christmas season growth in attendance - supplementing it with a Carol Service in a local pub which attracted 20 worshipers; and an additional Christingle Service for members of the Toddler Group. The Christmas Eve Christingle Service attracted 75 people - a significant increase from last year's 55 people.
In Walsall, attendance at the Carol Service at St Catherine with St Chad's Church in Beechdale saw attendance increase from 45 to 78 - a rise of 73 per cent; and attendance at the Christmas Eve midnight service went up from 48 to 53.
And at St Mark's Church in Shelfield, in the north of Walsall, attendance at the crib service went from 26 last year to 33 this year; while the Midnight Mass went from 57 adults in 2005 to 78 this year.
The Revd Jenny Hill, Resident Minister at St Mark's, said: "Our Christmas Day attendance included a couple who live around the corner but who hadn't been in the church for 30 years. Overall, this is a remarkable attendance which we find very heartening. At the end of the services people didn't seem to want to go but stop and talk - to us and to each other - a sure sign they felt comfortable and welcomed and at home."
St Michael's Church in Lichfield usually gets 450 worshippers at its Christmas Eve Christingle Service meaning the church has been packed to capacity. The last few have been standing room only so they decided to thin numbers out by holding two services this year.
The Rector of Saint Michael's, the Revd David Kirk Beedon said: "We ended up still being pretty packed at both services! The total for the two services was 700 which suggests that the Christmas message still has a large audience. This is especially good news as the church collection at the two services goes to The Children's Society working with some of the most disadvantaged families and youngsters."
In Aldridge, St Mary's Parish Church saw 1,600 people attend its Christmas services - up 10 per cent on ast year, which itself was up 10 per cent on the year before. One parishioner, talking about the Christmas Eve Carol Service, commented: "I have been coming to church for 60 years, since I was five years old, and I hadn't ever seen that many people in the church before."
At Colton, near Rugeley, attendance at the Christingle Service went up nearly 36 per cent from 162 to 220; while attendance at the Carol Service increased 23 per cent from 88 to 108. A congregation member commented: "No particular explanation can be offered - we believe God is involved!"
In South Staffordshire, around 1,100 people attended the various Christmas Eve services at St Benedict Biscop Church in Wombourne - up 10 per cent on 2005. And 480 people attended the Carols around the Crib service.
The Revd Paul Brown, Vicar of Wombourne, said: "Every chair and pew in the church was taken and people were standing three deep at the back and in the entrance."
In West Bromwich, attendance at Midnight Mass at Saint Francis' Church in Friar Park increased from 130 in 2005 to more than 170 this year.
Attendance was also up at Normacot and Meir Heath churches in Stoke on Trent; with 927 people attending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day worship services.
In the Parish of Chesterton, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day attendances were up 26 per cent to 277 following the introduction of additional services.
And in Lilleshall, attendance at the Carol Service went up from 178 to 192 (eight per cent); and the Christmas Day attendance was up from 85 to 107 (26 per cent). But the big increase was in the Christingle Service which saw attendances increase from 212 to 334 - a rise of 58 per cent.