Trump, first lady attend Christmas Eve service in Palm Beach


A family tradition endured Sunday night as President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump attended the late Christmas Eve service at the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach.

The president and first lady arrived just after the beginning of the 10:30 p.m. service and sat in the third pew from the front. They were greeted by a standing ovation and cheers from the congregation as the church’s choir performed “Candlelight Carol.”

COMPLETE COVERAGE: President Donald Trump in Palm Beach for Christmas, New Year’s

People occasionally held up cellphones to snap photos of the president during the service, but they quickly were asked to stop by church ushers and occasionally by the Secret Service agents who were stationed throughout the sanctuary.

During the greeting, several people gathered around the president to shake his hand. As Communion was offered, people who lined up next to Trump — who was seated on the center aisle — paused to say, “Merry Christmas,” offer words of encouragement or, as one woman did, mouth, “Thank you.”

The Rev. James Harlan’s homily focused on the power of words, and the differences between God’s word and the words used by people. “The word of God is more powerful and more transforming than any word you or I could utter,” he said, noting the “destructive potential” words can have. “God’s word is pure light,” he added.

Sunday night’s service drew hundreds of people, with many seated in an overflow room adjacent to the sanctuary. Some lined up more than two hours early to have a seat in the sanctuary.

RELATED: Photos of Trump at church: Crossing boundary or documenting history?

Bethesda-by-the-Sea is just under a five-minute drive up the Atlantic Ocean from the president’s Mar-a-Lago Club. The historic sanctuary — it is the oldest Protestant church in the region — has played a major role in the first family’s lives: The president and first lady married there in 2005. Their son, Barron, was christened there the following year. And the couple, occasionally joined by other family members, have attended Christmas Eve and Easter services there.

When Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie Abe, visited Trump at Mar-a-Lago in April, first lady Melania Trump took Mrs. Abe to Bethesda-by-the-Sea. “Proud to share part of my family history with Mrs. Abe at the Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea where @POTUS & I were married, where we celebrate and we pray,” the first lady said in a post on her @FLOTUS Instagram account accompanied by a photo of the church’s garden.

Since his election, the president and first lady enter Bethesda-by-the-Sea from the south side of the building, a side entrance that allows more direct access to the seats set aside for them toward the front of the church.

The service was not on Trump’s schedule released to the media, and church officials have declined in the past to confirm whether Trump would attend.

But regular attendees are becoming familiar with the security practices put in place ahead of Trump’s arrival: Worshippers are ushered through metal detectors. Women’s purses are searched. Men in dark suits with earpieces walk the line of parishioners waiting to enter the 500-person capacity sanctuary.

RELATED: Inside the beloved church that hosts the Trump family

The white security tents and red-and-blue flashing lights of nearby Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office vehicles were in contrast to the building itself, a towering stone structure built in 1925 and modeled on the Gothic-style Cathedral Leon in Spain. It’s a long way from Bethesda-by-the-Sea’s first structure, which was built using driftwood and old boxes in 1889.

The church’s beauty has made it a destination for photographers, weddings and tourists. On a Sunday morning, children can be found playing in the picturesque courtyard, which features palms and bougainvillea. The gardens on the east side of Bethesda-by-the-Sea are lush with flowering plants. A koi pond and stone bridge give the scene a feel of being in an English churchyard, with a tropical twist.

Its location has made it popular with dignitaries and celebrities alike. Past presidents, including former President Gerald Ford, have sat in its pews. And Michael Jordan married Yvette Prieto there in 2013.

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