It’s not the most wonderful time of the year
By Erin Dunigan | Presbyterians Today
The holidays have been difficult for Christine Caton ever since her mother died — three days after Christmas. As an only child, with her father already gone, Caton experienced profound grief in losing her mom. The Christmas season only accentuated that grief.
The year after her mother’s death, Crossroads Presbyterian Church in Waterford, Connecticut, where Caton’s parents were members, offered a Blue Christmas service. Caton, a Presbyterian pastor herself, now retired, had never heard of such a service. She went anyway.
“I went as a person who really needed to be there,” she recalled.
On the night of the service, Caton entered a sanctuary lit only with a few candles on the Communion table. There in the dimly lit room, beautiful music played, and comforting Scripture passages were read.
“I really appreciated the service,” Caton said. “It was simple, and the feeling of being in the sanctuary was like being enveloped in the Spirit amid the dark.”
Blue Christmas services, or Longest Night services as they are sometimes called, offer an alternative to the joy of the seasonal celebrations for those who find themselves in places of darkness due to loss of a loved one, depression or other difficulties. In fact, Longest Night services are held on or around the winter solstice — when daylight is fleeting and darkness lingers. For those who find themselves in a long, dark night of the soul, such services can offer a glimmer of light.
75% of PC(USA) churches do not offer a Blue Christmas/Longest Night service
Caton said a highlight of the service for her was the prayer shawl those attending received.
“To me, being wrapped in the prayer shawl signified that people were praying for me, as they prayed over the shawls while they knit them — a symbol of the community praying for one another,” she said.
For Caton, the Blue Christmas service was a way of acknowledging her grief. It provided her a way to connect with God through her tears.
“Sometimes, I think, on Christmas Eve we don’t acknowledge our pain, as services tend to be more upbeat. But it’s hard to be upbeat and happy when you are grieving,” she said. “You need to have a space to have the tears and the anger and all of that when you are grieving.”
A pastor’s depression
In December 2015, the Rev. Christa Brewer, associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, found herself looking for a Longest Night service. She was having a hard time dealing with her own depression.
The South Carolina pastor’s family is scattered, with most in California and some in Michigan, so the Christmas season can be lonely for her.
“There is so much emphasis at Christmas on family, but in 10 years of pastoring, I have only shared Christmas with family members once,” she said.
So even though she was leading others toward proclaiming “Joy to the World,” her own world was difficult. Searching the internet, Brewer figured that some church in the area was bound to have a Longest Night service.
She found one, but it was held in early December. There was another, but it was for that very night and she couldn’t attend.
“It was striking to me how many churches didn’t have the service,” Brewer recalled.
As it came time to plan the following year’s Advent and Christmas services, Brewer remembered that a retired clergywoman in the congregation had suggested to her that First Presbyterian offer a Longest Night service. So she asked members of the congregation: Is this something that you might want to do? The answer was a resounding “Yes!”
The next question was what to actually do. What would the service entail? Would the decorations in the sanctuary be too festive for such a service? How might the church give those attending a tangible way to express their feelings? How might the church create a space where people would feel comfortable to express their grief?
Some things were obvious, Brewer says, like having Communion. And those active in the church’s Stephen Ministry, a ministry focused on caring for the congregation, would read Scripture and be available for private prayer throughout the service.
But what about the candles around the Advent wreath? How could one light candles of hope, joy, peace and love when feeling nothing of the sort?
“We created a liturgy to extinguish the candles of hope, peace, joy and love, and then we re-lit them, giving them the new distinctions of hopelessness, fear, grief and loneliness,” Brewer said.
Votive candles were also provided and arranged on the Communion table. Those attending the service were invited to come forward and light a candle whenever in the service they felt moved to do so. Brewer lit hers during the contemplation of loneliness.
Getting the word out
As with any new venture, getting the word out to those in the community is important. That is why Brewer prefers using the phrase Longest Night rather than Blue Christmas.
“When you hear ‘Come to the Blue Christmas service,’ you might think it is a service where you will get depressed,” she said. “But in the Longest Night you are reminded that even as things get darker, the light comes. You recognize the light of Christ in the service.”
In the two years that First Presbyterian has been hosting the Longest Night service, several lessons have been learned.
The first year they hosted the service, Brewer and the others leading it assumed that they simply needed to publicize the basics — the name of the event, the time, date, place and so forth.
But out of their congregation of 1,500, only about 25 people came. Those who had planned it were a bit disappointed, Brewer said.
“It was really meaningful for the 25 who went, but we wondered why more didn’t attend,” Brewer said.
So the following year she tried to better explain the service to the congregation, writing a newsletter article and making announcements about it. She wanted people to know that there was a space for them if they were not feeling the joy or the buzz of cultural Christmas or if it was too much to bear.
Again, about 25 people came to the service.
“We thought we had put in so much extra effort in publicizing the service that people would come,” Brewer said. It was incredibly meaningful for those who had attended, but why didn’t more people attend?
Brewer started asking why people didn’t attend. The answer, across the board, was: “I’m not depressed, so I thought the service wasn’t for me.”
Brewer understands. Before becoming a pastor, she may have answered the same. But then she found herself to be the one desperately needing such a service, and couldn’t find one.
“I remember thinking, ‘Why don’t more churches have these services? I am not the only one out here who feels this way,’ ” she said.
Brewer doesn’t want someone else feeling the way she did and not having a place to go. For her, the fact that First Presbyterian Church hosts such a service is a sign of its willingness to care for people in grief, in depression and in the midst of loss — even if those people never actually attend.
“Just the fact that we have this service says something. It makes a statement that you are not alone if you are feeling this way,” she said. “We as a culture tend to overlook the people who are grieving, who are lonely, especially at this time of year.”
The service, she says, is a recognition that happiness and joy are not the only emotions involved in the season.
“The Incarnation is a reason for celebration that God loved us so much that God sent Jesus to be with us, but it is also a reason for celebration that Jesus came to walk with us through the pains of life as well. I wish we could better hold these two messages together,” Brewer said.
Sharing the grief
The Rev. Kirianne Weaver Riehl is a pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Ithaca, New York. Though the congregation has a long tradition of hosting a Longest Night service, it has never been well attended, she says.
“It is as if, in focusing on the individual, it exacerbated the discomfort, the shame, even more for those who found themselves suffering. The small turnout would then make that even more uncomfortable, leading those who did attend to feel even more like outliers,” Weaver Riehl said.
Small attendance has plagued the congregation’s other services of healing and wholeness. But she has some thoughts on why this is the case.
“People are really unwilling to self-identify as grieving,” Weaver Riehl said. “People seem to prefer to think of themselves as independent and self-reliant and all those ‘boot strappy’ words that are part of our American ideal.”
With this in mind, Weaver Riehl shifted the emphasis from the healing of one’s self to the healing of others.
“The new way we present the service takes the focus off our individual pain or needs, and in some ways puts it rightly back on God,” Weaver Riehl said. One of the things that begin to happen, she said, is that people come to the service on behalf of someone else in their lives: “My uncle just lost his wife, so I’m here for him” or “My best friend just lost their baby, so I’m here for them.”
For Weaver Riehl, rather than being a contradiction to traditional Advent and Christmas services, the Longest Night actually deepens the significance of those services.
“We’re trying to help people integrate the fullness of life and know that we can find our joy in the midst of our sorrow,” Weaver Riehl said.
Erin Dunigan is a PC(USA) ordained evangelist living in Baja California, Mexico, where she founded Not Church, a gathering of atheists and agnostics who wish to deepen their spiritual journey. She is also a freelance writer and photographer who finds joy in riding her horse daily along the beach.
Coping with holiday blues
- Keep expectations for the holiday season manageable.
- Make a list and prioritize the most important activities. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do.
- Remember that the holiday season does not automatically banish reasons for feeling sad or lonely. There is room for these feelings to be present.
- Let go of the past. Don’t be disappointed if your holidays are not like they used to be. Life brings changes.
- Do something for someone else.
- Enjoy holiday activities that are free, such as driving around to look at Christmas decorations.
- Don’t be afraid to try something new. Celebrate the holidays in a way you have not done before.
- Spend time with people who are supportive and care about you.
- Find time for yourself. Don’t spend all your time providing activities for your family and friends.
Source: The National Mental Health Association
Blue Christmas Liturgy
The following are examples of prayers to incorporate in a Blue Christmas service. These were written by parish nurses at First Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The complete order of worship can be found at presbyterianmission.org/resource/blue-christmas-service-wholeness-and-healing
Call to Worship
Today we come looking for the Christ Child.
We come, bringing our hurts, our worries, our fears.
We come seeking relief from pain. With the psalmist of old we say,
“O Lord, you are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.
Give heed to my cry, for I am brought very low.”
God of mercy, hear our prayer in this Advent season for ourselves, and for our families and friends who live with the struggles of illness and the pain of loss. We ask for strength for today, courage for tomorrow, and peace for the past. We ask these things in the name of Christ, who shares our life in joy and sorrow, death and new birth, despair and promise. Amen.
Intercession for Healing
The God of strength moves within us;
the God of courage hears our distress.
The God of hope reveals wholeness to us;
the God of healing touches us when we are broken.
When the pain overwhelms us, when the burden is too heavy,
we turn to our God, who is sustaining and redeeming.
When there is loneliness, when there is isolation,
we turn to our God, who is loving and present.
For God created us, redeemed us and sustains us,
and we are not alone.
Lead us in your ways, O God, and bring us your healing touch.
May the power and the mystery go before us, to show us the way,
shine above us to lighten our world,
lie beneath us to bear us up,
walk with us and give us companionship,
and glow and flow within us to bring us joy.
When loneliness, grief and depression get too great to handle, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit the Suicide Prevention Resource Center at sprc.org
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