The luminarias lining the sidewalk of the church across the street beckon me. This is my first Blue Christmas service.
I’ve been melancholy about the approaching holiday. I am preparing to perform the Great FamiLee Holiday Schlep to the Midwest, as we do every year. It is like orchestrating a museum installation of my little family, so that we can reassemble in the homes of the grandparents for what always feels like too short a stay but too long a round-trip journey. The annual exercise is exhausting. I don’t want to go anywhere — but I don’t want to feel left out, either.
This is why I am attending the Blue Christmas service tonight. I learn that these rituals are also called Longest Night services, since they occur on or near the winter solstice, when the darkness dominates.
Bleak poets have had a field day with this tableau. The first reflection we read is “Acquainted With the Night,” and of course the author is Robert Frost, because if we’re going to go all in on the blues, Frost is our shaman. Let’s invoke all the iceberg imagery, and let’s make sure all the rest of the New England dead poets’ society members are invited. Is that you, Emily Dickinson? Did you bring Henry David Thoreau as you were sweeping through icy Colonial Concord on your way here? What’s that? He caught a cold. Couldn’t he transcend it? What about our boy e. e. cummings? Oh, good, he made it. He’s no stranger to the blues. Robert, take it away . . .
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
Something about time being neither wrong nor right jibes with me.
Our family has just moved back to Massachusetts following a six-year stint in Tennessee. Our kids remind us every 15 minutes how much they hate Boston and how much better Tennessee is than anything this supposedly world-class city can offer them, especially since all of their friends in Tennessee go to birthday parties every day and eat cotton candy nonstop and win all of their baseball games so why did we ruin their lives?
Baby Jesus. Emily Dickinson. Robert Frost. Whoever is out there, resurrected or condemned, can you help a sister out?
Over the last couple of decades, Blue Christmas services have become more popular, acknowledging the pain and loneliness that participants (and random ladies who live across the street from churches) experience in a season that is billed as merry and jolly. Feeling low and mopey during Christmas is inconvenient. The depressive sads are extra bulk when people are already carrying so many parcels and packages and invitations to holiday soirees.
Facing down the forces that burden our hearts, whether systemic or unique to our own lives, is very much woven into the fabric of a holiday that remembers a baby born to an unwed teenage mother in a cold, dusty barn. We do ourselves a disservice to view Blue Christmas services as designed for an exclusive club of mourners and people wearing the sad pants.
Some weeks after Blue Christmas, I find the powder-blue program under a pile of medical bills. The front features a photo of a forest, embanked in snow. One mighty evergreen stands in the foreground, flanked by other snow-laden trees. There is no other imagery, no ribbon tied around a mailbox, no Radio Flyer abandoned in the snow. This photo offers me so much grace.
In marriage, in family, in church, we are often pressed into a liminal space, a solitude within the gathering. Just like the fir trees, though, we are evergreen for as long as there is breath in our lungs. We were made to withstand hard seasons, no matter the weather. I am thankful for the other trees in my forest, acquainted with and unafraid of the night.