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Church services for those bereft of holiday joy

LEXINGTON — Colored lights shine from the tall evergreen on Lexington Common. Across the street, wreaths with bright red bows decorate the doors of Hancock United Church of Christ, Congregational. But inside the church’s dimly lit chapel the other night, the mood was somber.

A couple of dozen people had come for the church’s “Blue Christmas” service. Together, they sang quiet carols and lit candles for loved ones lost, for friends and family battling illness or hardship, and for their own private troubles.

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“It was emotional for me, it opened up some wounds — but it’s worth it,” said Manuel Navia, 66, who especially misses his late parents, both of whom died in the last three years, during the holidays. He came to the service to support others in his congregation with fresher grief than his own.

“Blue Christmas” services have been proliferating at churches in the Boston area and around the country during December in recent years, offering what can be a welcome respite from pressure to exude Yuletide cheer for those who are grieving, struggling, or just feeling low.

“The idea was to try to create a worship space that acknowledged where they were, and let them feel what they were feeling, and to try and tap into not the superficial Christmas joys, but the deeper promises of our faith — that God is now with us,” said the Rev. Paul Shupe of Hancock Church.

A variation on the same theme is the “Longest Night” service, often held on the evening of the winter solstice, Dec. 21. It tends to dwell less on offering pastoral care for those experiencing sadness around the holidays and more on finding light in spiritual and seasonal darkness.

Blue Christmas and Longest Night services tend to feature quieter hymns and carols, like “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “Silent Night.” Silent prayer and candlelight are featured prominently. At a Blue Christmas service to be held jointly by Christ Church in Andover and St. Paul’s Episcopal in North Andover, prayer ministers will be available to pray with people individually, and the music will include Taize chant, meditative singing from a French ecumenical monastic order.

‘It was emotional for me . . . butit’s worth it.’

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The Rev. Laura Everett at the Massachusetts Council of Churches, an ecumenical organization, estimates there will be at least two dozen Blue Christmas or Longest Night services in the state this year, based on a casual survey of her colleagues. In New England, the trend is most common in mainline Protestant churches, although elsewhere in the country some Catholic churches and religious orders appear to be offering them.

“This seems like a smart move on the churches’ part to acknowledge that we long for light in a season of darkness, and we grieve complex family histories at a time when every ad tells us how wonderful every seasonal gathering is,” Everett said.

The First Congregational Church, UCC of Amherst will hold its second Longest Night service this year. The gathering ends with the congregation proceeding out of the church with candles and lighting a bonfire in a fire pit outside.

The Rev. Vicki Kemper said this is meant to symbolize “the sort of faith it takes to take our light, or the light we believe God gives us, out into the darkness of the world.”

Last year, she said, someone in the group spontaneously suggested that the small group huddled around the bonfire sing Christmas carols — which might have seemed out of place, because the whole point was to not force people to pretend to be happy if they are not.

“Yet it was this organic thing, and it was really powerful,” Kemper said. “It was this small community of somewhat hurting people, standing by this fire outside and singing.”

Liturgical historians are unable to pinpoint the origin of the phenomenon, although it seems to be a relatively recent one. The Rev. Heather Murray Elkins, a professor at Drew Theological School, in Madison, N.J., turned up what might be the earliest publication of a Blue Christmas service, a 1996 release written by a church in British Columbia.

The Rev. Lizette Larson-Miller, a professor of liturgical leadership at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, said in an e-mail that she suspects a combination of factors explain the emergence of Blue Christmas services in the late 20th century.

In the secular world, she said, there is the unrelenting pressure from the retail industry during the holidays, and diminished face-to-face interaction amid the rise of social media.

And in the ecclesiastical realm, she said, many churches have jettisoned the themes of penitence and lament that were traditionally part of an emotionally complex Advent season — the four weeks leading up to Christmas — in favor of presenting what she calls “happy Advent.” The days following Christmas on the liturgical calendar — the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr; St. John the Evangelist, who was exiled; and the Holy Innocents, the children killed by King Herod — present opportunities to explore some of the same emotions as Blue Christmas services, but they receive relatively little attention these days.

“Keeping those feast days brings death into new birth, and tempers the ‘pretend’ focus of many parish celebrations — solemn joy, rather than perky,” Larson-Miller said.

Shupe tends to hold Blue Christmas services in early December — he finds people are ready for them. At the First Church and Parish in Dedham, a Unitarian Universalist church, the Rev. Rali M. Weaver is waiting until Dec. 30 this year.

The end of the month, she said, is a good time, because many people encounter disappointment upon disappointment over the holiday season.

“The idea is to give people a chance to let go of all the sadness and just move into the New Year without carrying all that with them,” she said.

Navia, who attended the service at Hancock Church in Lexington on Monday night, said the service offered him perspective on his grief — and, he hopes, the chance to support people he considers to be members of his extended family at a difficult time of year.

“Those of us who have been through [loss of loved ones] can comfort the ones going through it and say, you know, it’s never going to be the same,” he said. “But time will allow you to adjust, to modulate, to accept, and to restructure things in such a way that maybe . . . you might be coming back to this thing next year not as someone who is looking for help, but who is giving the help.”

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.
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