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'Blue' Christmas services offer comfort when the holidays aren't happy

[Episcopal News Service] For the first time in four years, Margaret Rogers of Mira Loma, California, felt she could face Christmas in a new way.

"The holidays have been so awful, so lonely," since her 22-year-old son Derek Crawford was shot and killed in Los Angeles in July 2006, said Rogers after attending a Nov. 30 "Blue Christmas" service at St. Mark's Church in Upland in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

After years of "shock, of feeling like I couldn't even hold a thought in my head," lighting a candle in her son's memory, singing the familiar songs, and hearing the Christmas story gave her hope for healing, even a sense of peace, she said.

"It felt like such a community of caring. It's such a healing thing to be in a place like this," said Rogers, 57. "After my son was killed, I needed support, but there's been nothing to recognize my grief. Once the funeral was over, it was just over."

Some churches call them Blue Christmas services; others, the "Longest Night." They are held at various times throughout the Advent season. The liturgies vary but their intent is the same, "to invite people to celebrate Christmas in a new way," said the Rev. Michael Wright, rector of Grace Church in Charleston in the Diocese of South Carolina.

"Someone will say to me that they can't celebrate Christmas. That it's the anniversary of a tragic death or something else that's happened. I suggest there's an option between celebrating Christmas the way you always did and in a new way," he said in a recent telephone interview from his Charleston office.

"We remember all those feelings of pain and darkness and loss that are in the Christmas story and we're reminded there's something more than a Hallmark Christmas," he added. "There's no false sense of Christmas joy. There are lots of tears and the ability to feel whatever they're feeling and to not have to put on a Christmas smile for everyone."

Wright said the sudden death of a sister-in-law when he was in high school eventually led him to explore alternative liturgies for the season.

"She died in a car accident and that introduced me to this other world of grieving people at Christmas that I'd never known before," he recalled.

"I met all these people I didn't know existed who didn't enjoy Christmas because it was too painful. They don't want to destroy everybody else's Christmas so they just fade away and hide during the season."

But the alternative service can "allow you to come and observe Christmas if you're not going to observe it," he said. "It's also a place to put all these things in context. Then when Christmas comes maybe you can celebrate in a more joyous way because you've been able to grieve where you've needed to grieve."

He recalled seeing a member of the children's choir a few years ago, with tears streaming down her cheeks, as she tied a blue bow on the parish Christmas tree in memory of a cherished pet.

"She'd lost a family pet. Without having that liturgy what was she to do with all that grief? I hadn't noticed it beforehand but in church she had a place to put that grief, so when Christmas came it had been recognized and placed there at the manger along with everything else."

The Rev. Jeffrey Mello, 42, rector of St. Paul's Church in Brookline in the Diocese of Massachusetts, incorporates the four Advent candles into a "Longest Night Service" held Dec. 21, the winter solstice.

"It literally represents the longest night of the year and the longest night of our lives that some folks find themselves in," Mello said. Three of the candles are lit and prayers aid signifying losses -- of loved ones, of relationships and of direction in our lives. Finally, the fourth candle represents the light of hope, said Mello in a Dec. 10 telephone interview.

"It's a prophetic service," Mello said. "It speaks to the larger community that we, the church, get it, that we're not just pretending that everything's always OK because it's Christmas time."

At St. Peter's Church in Lakewood in the Diocese of Ohio, the Blue Christmas liturgy "is a service of light, an early evening service of hymns, Scripture and we also have anointing," said the Rev. Canon Nancy Wittig, assistant to the rector.

It's also a reminder that "they too are welcome under the umbrella of a loving God even though right now they're having a hard time," she said.

For many, the losses are magnified as retailers step up holiday advertising amid a faltering economy, she said.

"This year they started playing Christmas carols before Halloween. For many people, it's just a very painful time of year -- it reminds them of what they've lost or never had, of their insecurities, the weariness of ill health, isolation or just feeling blue," she said.

"Increasingly, we have people who are unemployed and there's tremendous grief," she added. "There are those who've lost homes, jobs, social standing and are now in food lines. Sometimes, families are separated because there are more places just for men or just for women than for families," she added.

Carolyn Voldrich, parish administrator at the Church of Our Saviour in Charlottesville, in the Diocese of Virginia, said the service, now in its fourth year, can be extremely beneficial to everyone.

"I find it personally helpful because you don't get to be middle-aged and not have some sort of heaviness in your heart, where you're missing someone or because things in your life didn't turn out the way you wanted them to," she said.

Wright said that even positive change might evoke grief and make the holiday season seem unbearable.

He recalled a parishioner "whose marriage had ended. It was a good thing that this marriage ended yet she told me that she'd had to put up the Christmas tree all by herself. She'd made a good decision, but she was still grieving.

"The point is that we have to have a place to park our grief rather than to have to bury it within our own beings at Christmas just to get through the holidays. Surely there's got to be a better way."

Lois Hartzell of Montclair, California, said she doesn't go to church most of the time, but decided to make an exception for the St. Mark's Blue Christmas service this year.

For nearly the past decade "most of the Christmas season has been a blur" and a heavy reminder of six close deaths -- of her husband, a son, her parents, a brother and a sister -- all within a space of just five years.

"The holidays are hard for me," she said. "I still cry; I get into blue moods. I go from [relatives'] house to house and stay a little bit here, a little there and then I just go home."

But she added: "I've never been to a service like this before. I enjoyed it. I feel good about having come."

-- The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.

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