For those experiencing grief, loss or hardship, the Christmas season is far from the most wonderful time of the year. Typical holiday festivities—merry carol singing, decorating, gathering with family and purchasing gifts—emphasize joy and cheer, leaving little room for pain and grief.
In response, some churches offer special services leading up to Christmas that accommodate those for whom the season is trying and difficult.
These services, called Blue Christmas or Longest Night services, emphasize the pain of loss felt by many at this time of year, and offer a somber, gentle space to gather. Symbolically, many of these services are held on or around December 21, the date of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year.
St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Jarvis, Ont., has been holding Blue Christmas services for the past decade. “This is designed specifically for people for whom Christmas is not a happy time,” says Canon Richard Moorse, who began the services 10 years ago after adapting the idea from a United Church minister he had worked with. The service, he says, is meant as a way to acknowledge the birth of Christ without the joyful, celebratory trappings of a typical Christmas service, which can be painful for those coping with loss.
“The constant refrains on radio and television, in shopping malls and churches, about the happiness of the season, about getting together with family and friends, reminds many people of what they have lost. The anguish of the death of a loved one can make us feel alone in the midst of the celebrating and joy,” the liturgy for St. Paul’s service reads. “We need the space and time to acknowledge our sadness; we need to know that we are not alone. We need encouragement to live the days ahead of us.”
St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Ponoka, Alta., began holding a Blue Christmas service about 15 years ago in collaboration with the local United Church, says the Rev. Donna Willer, who has been with the church since 2013. Willer has continued the tradition, and sees the service as an important expression of grief. “The service is very important, as it gives them [attendees] permission to grieve openly, offers hope and comfort—consolation that they are not alone in their grief—and that others care, most especially Christ.”
Maxine Jonson, a parishioner at St. Mary’s, had never attended the Blue Christmas service, as it fell on her wedding anniversary, December 21. Last year, her husband passed away after a two-decade battle with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. She attended the service for the first time that year, and is looking forward to attending again. “Our secular world is so busy and noisy all year round,” she wrote in an email. She praised the quiet, reflective nature of the service: “The service is simple and focused on our Lord…We light candles and focus on our personal needs in an atmosphere of quiet contemplation.” This quietness “restores our hearts and enables us to carry on.”
Another parishioner, George Crowhurst, will be attending the service this year and lighting a candle for his wife. A volunteer with Victim Services for many years, he has encouraged individuals to attend the service, which he says offers a “quiet time for meditation [and] reflection.”
The service is open to anyone, and often non-church-goers and even those who practice other religions attend.
At St. Paul’s, the service is meant to be ecumenical in nature and open to any worshipper who needs it, regardless of denomination. “We don’t get that many people out,” says Moorse, noting that it is typical to have only around a half-dozen attendees. But, he says, the numbers don’t matter. “I just do it because I think it’s important.”
While attendees are often coping with the loss of a loved one, Moorse says, there are many types of grief that are expressed in these services. “It could be the loss of a child, it could be the loss of a marriage…any sort of substantial loss. Any loss like that creates a hole in our life.”
The service at St. Paul’s includes a candle lighting ceremony done in memory of those who have been lost, which in turn symbolizes resilience and hope. Congregants are invited during the service to come forward, light a candle and place it in a bowl of water. While the bowl symbolizes feelings of loss and pain, the liturgy states that the candles act as a reminder that loved ones’ “presence is still with us…A symbol of what they meant to us, how they loved us, and formed us, and can never be taken away.”
“Grieving with others is so valuable because one will be offered empathy, comfort, prayer, Scripture and temporary or long-term relationship,” Willer wrote, in an email. “The Church of Christ is relational.” While Willer believes it is important to face pain and sadness, “and not tuck it away on a shelf, hoping someday it will go away,” she believes that Christ offers hope.
“Christ suffered for us once on the cross, [and] he suffers with us in our sorrow.” She cites Matthew 11:28 as an important Scripture to this service: “Come to me, all who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
“In all this darkness, there’s light at the end of the tunnel—and it’s not another train coming. There’s the light of comfort that’s coming down,” says Moorse. “I think more than anything else, that’s the heart of it.”
Moorse likens the pain of losing someone to a physical scar, saying, “It never really goes away.” But in a season dense with emotion, a recognition of that pain brings some hope and comfort to those who mourn.