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The Unexpected Gift of a Blue Christmas

For those who find the holidays difficult, there are services which can bring solace

By Michelle Van Loon

I used to approach the month of December with the equivalent of emotional sugarplums dancing in my head. My happy memories of Christmases past mingled with my dreams of future holidays filled with faith, fun and family.

Bare trees, winter sky, blue christmas
Credit: Adobe

But as December 2014 approached, those memories and dreams seemed harsh ghosts of Christmases past and future, mocking a present reality filled with loss: the death of my mother, the recent loss of our home as a result of the housing market collapse and the chaos and confusion of a serious mental health crisis in our family. As the holidays approached that year, I was filled with dread instead of anticipation.

As a person of faith, I often found strength and solace in my church community, but I felt I'd be white-knuckling or avoiding the joy-to-the-world Christmas services and activities that year.

As the holidays approached that year, I was filled with dread instead of anticipation.

At the time, my husband and I were enrolled in a National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) support group for family members dealing with mental health issues. During one of the meetings, the talk turned to the upcoming holidays. Every person in the room shared why the upcoming holidays filled them with sadness or dread.

One group member invited the rest of us to a Blue Christmas service at her church, explaining that it was designed to be a community-wide event for those for whom the holidays were difficult. We decided to take her up on her invitation.    

The Challenge of 2020

Most of us are facing a difficult holiday season this year. COVID-19 has ushered in a year of loss on a scale none of us have ever experienced. With apologies to Elvis, a whole lotta people are facing a Blue Christmas in 2020.

While a single church service is not an antidote to a painful holiday season, I found that the Blue Christmas service was a balm to my soul. That Blue Christmas service was one of the most meaningful December church events I've ever attended.

Congregations across the U.S., and in many denominations, offer services like these, and they indeed may be a balm to the soul for those experiencing grief after this difficult year. (The Mentalhealthministries.net site offers words for a nondenominational Blue Holiday Service.)

Churches offering Blue Christmas services often frame their descriptions of the gatherings with language like this:

Cries of 'Merry Christmas!' and non-stop caroling contrast with the feelings of many people at this time of year. For those suffering from the recent or impending death of loved ones, dealing with recent separation or divorce, struggling to find employment, or facing depression or family crisis, this can be a very isolated and dreary time. Every greeting and every song reminds the grief-stricken of how unhappy life is at this moment. We recognize that a lot of the Christmas celebrations do not meet everyone's needs. To fill this gap we are offering Blue Christmas.

A Community of Comfort and Care

Many Blue Christmas services are offered on or near December 21, which is the shortest, darkest day of the year. In addition, churches that observe the liturgical calendar remember the life of Thomas the Apostle on December 21. This follower of Jesus is perhaps best remembered for his frank expression of doubt and confusion.

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One pastor told me that the Blue Christmas service was one of his favorites of the entire year because the superficial social pleasantries that often mark church life were mercifully absent from a room full of mourners.

He noted that every person in the room, whether a long-time church member or a first-time visitor, helps form an ad hoc community of comfort and care. My husband and I experienced the sense of honesty and quiet fellowship at the first Blue Christmas service we attended. And we have discovered the same kind of respite in others like it that we've attended in the following years.  

Moments of Comfort

There is no single, set format for a Blue Christmas service, but most include Scripture readings like these and hymns that suit the theme and mood such as "O Come, O Come Immanuel" and "In The Bleak Midwinter."

Other elements of the short service usually include special prayers, the opportunity to say a word and/or light a candle in memory of a departed loved one, and hear carefully chosen readings or poems.

Compassionate pastors and leaders emphasize that no one attending the service is expected to participate beyond what each person is comfortable doing – and ensure they stock the sanctuary pews or chairs with ample boxes of tissue.

We will find a Blue Christmas service in which we can participate from home this year, as the losses in our lives have continued to accumulate.

Other comforting touches might include the gift of home-baked individual loaves of sweet holiday quick breads to share with each person in attendance.   

Because of the pandemic, many churches have shifted to online programming, so there may not be a loaf of cranberry bread waiting this year. But it may be easier than ever to locate a Blue Christmas service to attend from home in 2020.

If you belong to a church that doesn't offer such a service, do an internet search for "Blue Christmas Service online 2020" and you should be able to locate one that fits your needs and schedule.

Create New Traditions

For those of other faiths and for the religiously unaffiliated, your local hospice may be able to point you to resources and support that can help you navigate this difficult month.

Social worker Amy Morin offered some solid coping advice in her Psychology Today piece entitled "How to Deal With Grief During the Holidays." She suggests strategies including setting good boundaries, doing something kind for others and asking for help when you need it.

But the piece of advice that most resonated with me a few years ago and has taken on fresh meaning in 2020 are these words: "Don't be afraid to create new traditions this year, too. It's OK to get creative and do something a little out of the ordinary."

Maybe a Blue Christmas service is that "out of the ordinary" thing for you this year.

We will find a Blue Christmas service in which we can participate from home this year, as the losses in our lives have continued to accumulate. Then, perhaps, we'll deliver a loaf of cranberry-orange bread to the front porch of a friend who has experienced a loss recently.

Grief is often amplified in isolation. But the Blue Christmas service is one way of finding comfort in the truth that we aren't so alone after all.

contributor Michelle Van Loon
Michelle Van Loon is the author of six books, including this year's release Growing Sage: Cultivating Maturity, Purpose, and Spirituality in Midlife. She is the co-founder of a blog for midlife women and men called ThePerennialGen.com. Read More
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