By Neva Rae Fox
Correspondent

For some, Christmas is not necessarily a happy time. Blue Christmas services have helped people face a season of joy and mirth when they don’t feel jolly or merry.

“While our traditional seasonal liturgies focus on hopeful expectation and the birth of Jesus, they don’t necessarily or specifically speak to those feeling separated from that hope,” noted the Very Rev. Matt Rhodes, rector, Cunningham Chapel Parish/Christ Church, Millwood, Virginia. “In my experience, Blue Christmas services are a reminder to anyone struggling that God has not forgotten them and the Church has not forgotten them, and that we are available to walk with them through their grief or the difficulties of the season.”

Images of happy, loving families baking cookies and opening presents do not leave a lot of room for the reality of many people’s lives

“We are offering it especially because of the conditions this year with the pandemic, civil unrest, and racism,” said the Rev. Canon Jeff Martinhauk, canon for congregational life at St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego. “This has been a year marked by trauma, anxiety, and existential angst. Adding insult to injury, we won’t be able to celebrate the birth of Christ in ways that are familiar this year. Those things led us to realize that we need to offer a different kind of service this year. We will mark not the warmth of good hospitality but recognize the challenge of being turned away from the inn, the trauma of giving birth in a lonely place, and the hope that Christ offers to those who seem to be forgotten by the bright lights of the holiday season.”

As the St. Patrick’s, Madison Heights, Michigan flyer aptly heralds: “Christmas can be a time of feeling blue and especially this year with COVID-19 affecting our usual church activities and services, preparations, and celebrations with family and friends. The anguish of broken relationships, the insecurity of unemployment and economic distress, the weariness of ill health, the pain of isolation, the loss of a loved one or the loss of a family pet – all these contribute to feeling alone and feeling especially blue this year.”

Blue Christmas services, also known as Longest Day service or by other names, carry no set date other than during Advent.

“We have always called it a ‘Longest Night’ service instead of a ‘Blue Christmas’ service because we prefer to tie the service into the life cycle of creation,” noted the Rev. Genevieve Bishop, director of the Diocese of New Jersey School for Ministry. “After the longest night of each year, each day gains a little more daylight. Similarly, the greatest moments of darkness in our life will also be followed by the tiniest breakthroughs of light, with that light increasing slowly over time.”

“I like Blue Christmas/Longest Night services because they name the darkness that can threaten to engulf us this time of year,” said the Rev. Emily Schnabl, rector, St. Martha’s, Papillion, Nebraska. “There are so many images that surround us of happy, loving families baking cookies, eating meals, opening luxurious piles of presents, and that ideal doesn’t leave a lot of room for the reality of many people’s lives.”

Kay Collier McLaughlin in the Diocese of Lexington called their program “Grief and the Holidays.” “The sessions were during Advent and were open to anyone looking for a way to deal with losses during the dreaded holiday stretch, which runs from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day.”

In Richmond, Virginia, St. Stephen’s director of communications Sarah Bartenstein reported, “We have conducted a service we call the Holiday Memorial Service for more than a decade now. It’s an interfaith service and is specifically for those who have experienced the loss of a child. Attendance has included parents of children who died many years ago, or in the very recent past; children who were infants or very young, and those who were teenagers or young adults at the time of their death. Some suffered from fatal illness, others were injured, some died of violence, some took their own lives. Some were stillborn or died soon after birth.”

Blue Christmas services mostly address the loss of a loved one. For 2020, however, other losses, such as employment, income, or a home, are being included.

“Some congregants are mourning the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job or relationship, or have received their own diagnosis, or are maybe experiencing depression for no easily identifiable reason,” noted the Rev. Ryan Paetzold, priest in charge, Sts. Stephen & Barnabas, Florence, New Jersey and associate, Christ Church, Bordentown, New Jersey. “I think it’s important to acknowledge their experience. I think it is important to remember that God comes to us wherever we are — high, joyous places as well as low, extreme places, and everywhere in between.”

“This is a service of healing, with personal prayers of healing and strength for each person requesting them,” explained the Rev. Canon Tony Moon, Ph.D., assisting priest at St. Augustine of Canterbury, Oklahoma City. “I have conducted these services on the evening of the winter equinox — the longest night of the year — and, on the feast of St. Thomas — Doubting Thomas. The homily has centered on themes of having the feeling of being in darkness and doubt, and yet offering a message of hope that with each passing day, the darkness grows shorter and the light of day, longer. As a retired psychotherapist and now priest, I’m most willing to meet people wherever they authentically find themselves.”

There is no set liturgy, readings, or music for Blue Christmas services, although readings from Isaiah and the psalms, accompanied by meditational music, top the bill.

The Diocese of Fort Worth will offer a Blue Christmas service with Taizé music, readings and a liturgy “designed to offer solace and companions on the way as we all move through this strange time. With Texas in the midst of a huge spike in cases and in deaths, and with all gatherings strongly discouraged, we are mindful that people are struggling with more than the usual holiday blues,” said Katie Sherrod, communication director.

St. Mary’s, Eugene, Oregon, hosts a Blue Holidays Zoom series from the day after Thanksgiving and every two weeks through December 26. Based on the Order of Worship for the Evening, “the theme for the service is ‘Light and Peace in Christ,’ which fits nicely with prayers and readings for Advent,” explained the Rev. Christine A. Marie. “The readings are somber and focus on the theme of the darkness of struggle and loneliness, grief and loss, with the light of Christ.”

Candle lighting plays a key role in the service. At St. John’s, Kane, Pennsylvania, the Rev. Rebecca R. Harris, vicar, shared, “The ecumenical service began with the lighting of blue pillar candles and a litany of remembrance, which was written by one of the participating clergy. A white remembrance candle was also lighted at the steps leading to the chancel in the center aisle. During a time for silence and meditation, each person in attendance was invited to come forward to light a taper candle from the candle of remembrance, and then to place the lighted taper upright in sand in a large wooden bowl, in memory of a loved one, in forgiveness of self and of other, in hope of a brighter future, or however you feel led.”

“We light a candle as we name those whose presence we are missing,” explained Bishop, of the New Jersey School for Ministry. “We light a second candle to redeem the pain of other losses (relationships, jobs, security, peace, etc.) and other painful experiences (loss, loneliness, etc.) as we name these. We light a third candle of remembrance for those who experience lack of direction, and we acknowledge our struggle to trust God on our journey of life. Before closing the second movement, we light a final candle as a sign of the hope that the Christmas story offers.”

“The candle lighting aspect of the service has always been most moving,” noted the Rev. Joanne Epply-Schmidt, Associate Rector, Trinity Church, Princeton, New Jersey.  “We have a large glass, well, sandbox — it is actually the Desert Box from our Godly Play church school program — and we set the box on a table just in front of the altar. There is a Christ Candle — a large white pillar candle — from which people light individual votive candles that they then set in the sand. Some folks light one, others light many, one for each person or concern on their heart. By the time all are lit, the sandbox is very full, the light is bright, warm, and flickering in the darkened church, and just about everyone is in tears.”

The pandemic complicates Blue Christmas, of course.

“Exactly how we will represent the candle lighting this year is not completely decided,” Epply-Schmidt said, “but my vision is to have either a split screen with candles being lit on one side and persons reading names and prayers on the other, or a full screen of candles being lit with a voiceover of names and prayers being said.”

Barbara Marshall, outreach coordinator at St. Patrick’s Madison Heights, Michigan said, “We have made changes over the years, but this year will be the most unusual change. This will be the first year we will be doing the service via Zoom.”

That does not hinder the recognized need for 2020 Blue Christmas services.

“Blue Christmas services are most definitely needed this year,” Rhodes stated. “Feelings of grief, loss and separation that many already carry with them because of COVID and the upside-down nature of this year have been greatly magnified even beyond that of previous years.”

Janine Hand, director of communications, St. Peter’s, Del Mar, California, says 2020 won’t stop Blue Christmas. “We felt the losses suffered this year were too great to ignore it.”

The Rev. Sandra Malone talked about the need for a service in the Virgin Islands. “I think it’s important because people are experiencing so much loss. We have had 72 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and one death; there are currently no active cases and there have been no new ones for about a month. However, many people here have family members and friends overseas who have been directly affected. Many more have been indirectly affected through loss of jobs and income – our economy is highly dependent on tourism and, with no tourists visiting right now, people have been laid off or are working reduced hours. With the majority of the labor force imported, there are people who are behind on rent. Added to that, we import almost everything and prices in the supermarkets are creeping steadily upward. “

Malone continued, “There’s also the loss of so much that makes life normal — attending school full-time, in-person; being able to socialize without restrictions. And all this has come even as people still have not fully recovered from the ravages of hurricanes Irma and Maria.”

The Rev. James Walton, rector, All Saint’s, Philadelphia, said, “This year the Blue Christmas service is even more important than other years because we are all feeling the loss of community. As a church that was not able to hold in-person Holy Week and Easter Services, and now will not be able to hold in-person Advent or Christmas Services, there is an overwhelming sense of loneliness and abandonment. Further, almost everyone has been touched by the pandemic, either through loss of life, job or other reasons.”

“I believe the value of the Blue Christmas service is found in creating safe space for people to lament,” explained the Rev. Ed Zelley, rector, St. Luke’s, Metuchen, New Jersey.

“Not everyone finds this a joyous season for a wide variety of reasons. I believe we need it this year, with so many people being unable to be with family on top of any other sadness that they are going through. The key difference is it will be virtual.”

Becky Sparks, deaco​n​, Christ Church, Temple, Texas, said, “This will be the first year in recent times that Christ Church is doing a Blue Christmas, a.k.a Longest Night. Our intention is that it will be a special experience that will allow Christ’s presence to move into the places of sorrow and loneliness. This year, we cannot do an in-person service. We are going to share it virtually with readings, prayers, meditations, and music. There will be prayer partners monitoring chat to reach out with care to those who express a desire for someone to share with.”

Trinity, Princeton is including a litany for healthcare workers and first responders. “That is the value of the Service — we shed our own tears and share in the tears of others,” Epply-Schmidt noted. “There is a great sense of community and unequivocal permission to weep. We Anglicans can be so reserved — this is not one of those times, and it is spiritually, emotionally, and physically cathartic.”

“I plan to include intercessions that particularly reflect our experiences of 2020 and bring in the lighting of the Advent wreath as a form of solemn intercession.,” said Schnabl, from Nebraska.

Unfortunately, the pandemic is causing the cancellation of some services. Paetzold said, “I’m not holding a Blue Christmas service this year greatly because in-person worship is suspended at my congregation. Also, because the service has guest musicians, a guest preacher, and an intentional atmosphere. It is my first year at my current congregation, and our current restrictions make it challenging to introduce this type of service for the first time.”

Rhodes believes “Blue Christmas services are a reminder to anyone struggling that God has not forgotten them and the Church has not forgotten them, and that we are available to walk with them through their grief or the difficulties of the season.”

St. John’s, Midland, Michigan has had a Blue Christmas service for the past several years – typically around the winter solstice. “This year, given all that the world is going through – as well as our local community having experienced a devastating flood this spring when two local dams gave way and over 11,000 households experienced severe damage – the parish worship committee decided we would have two such services; one at our more usual time and one near the beginning of Advent as the world turns its attention to the joy and excitement of the Christmas season,” said the Rev. Jim Harrison, assistant to the rector. “In a year of pandemic, isolation, social injustice, and political division, as well as other personal loss and struggles, our hearts can be heavy and the sadness we feel at Christmas can be quite real. Our Blue Christmas service is a time to acknowledge and to share that sadness with one another, and to offer it to God, hopeful of God’s presence with us in the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas.”

“The losses this year have been of loves, families, friends, jobs, fellowship, shared celebrations, routines, security, predictability and so much more,” said Bishop. “For my communities, we feel acutely the absence of Eucharist. In the face of these losses, we know that too many people are grieving alone. We also know that there are certain sufferings particular to the pandemic. It is extremely difficult to bear this particular grief alone.”