CINCINNATI, Ohio – While many have started dreaming of a white Christmas, a recent Blue Christmas service in America’s heartland faced up to the reality that the season can be a profound struggle for those experiencing losses.
“Any loss, especially at this time of year, can feel so much heavier and make the season, which is represented everywhere with such glee and delight, just feel almost impossible,” explained Karen Brandstetter, Pastoral Associate at Bellarmine Chapel, a Cincinnati parish that sits at the center of Xavier University’s campus.
Brandstetter and a colleague, Stephanie Beck-Borden, initiated the parish’s annual Blue Christmas service twelve years ago after both women experienced significant losses and found the holidays to be surprisingly difficult.
“The idea came up that if it was overwhelming for us, it was probably a difficult time for many other people who experience not just the loss of loved ones, although especially that, but also the loss of job or even serious diagnosis of an illness for themselves or a family member,” said Brandstetter.
This past Monday, members of the parish and the surrounding community gathered on an appropriately cold, rainy evening for the 2019 edition of the Blue Christmas service, “From Darkness to Hope.” According to Brandstetter, the vast majority of attendees were there to mourn the loss of a loved one or to accompany a friend or family member who had lost someone recently. The parish’s new pastor quietly joined the participants scattered throughout the pews.
The Blue Christmas liturgy unfolded at the start of a difficult period for those experiencing grief and depression. Experts actively debate the facts and fictions surrounding the “Holiday Blues,” but surveys do suggest that the season is particularly tough on struggling Americans. For example, a 2014 NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) study revealed that 64 percent of respondents with mental illness found the holidays made their conditions worse.
Monday’s simple, solemn service began with passages from Scripture and gentle Advent hymns, such as “Wait for the Lord.” A litany of remembrance featured the lighting of candles in honor of lost loved ones, jobs, health, and joy.
The service also involved a period of silent reflection on the ways in which God has provided comfort in the lives of the attendees, followed by an opportunity for participants to share their stories with those around them. Many of those conversations about God’s comforting action then spilled out into the narthex after the official program drew to a close.
For Brandstetter, those lingering interactions in the narthex provide an annual affirmation of the service’s intrinsic value.
“At times it’s almost like they don’t want to leave… if it helps a handful of people, if it helps one person, get through the serious and heavy work of grief and mourning and help them know that God is still right there with them, then it’s worth doing this service,” she said.
“And if they come out of the service and share that with each other, it just doesn’t get any better than that, in terms of building community and comforting those who mourn,” Brandstetter said.
Blue Christmas services like Bellarmine’s take place around the country each December in many different Christian churches. In some cases, organizers host the event on the winter solstice and refer to it as a Longest Night service.
The precise origins of the Blue Christmas tradition are murky at best, but sporadic reports of Blue Christmas gatherings of varying styles and sizes suggest that Christians have been holding them since at least the mid-1990s.
The services tend to draw relatively small, intimate crowds – Bellarmine Chapel ranges from fifteen to forty attendees each year – but in at least one case at a Catholic parish in Louisville, Kentucky, a Christmas Eve Blue Christmas service drew 300 people, according to a 2012 USA Today story.
After more than a decade of organizing Bellarmine Chapel’s annual Blue Christmas services, Brandstetter paused to reflect on their significance.
“What I have noticed is that people truly appreciate the service and the quiet in their life for a few moments. It’s an opportunity for some comfort, sharing, peace, and confidence in God even if their faith is shaken by their loss,” she told Crux.
“They’re still coming here because they’re confident in God’s wanting to relate to them, and they’re wanting to relate to God,” Brandstetter said.
Recognizing that most parishes have yet to institute a Blue Christmas tradition for its grieving members, Brandstetter encouraged anyone interested in starting one to give her a call at Bellarmine Chapel’s offices. She said that she would happily share resources from their previous Blue Christmas services and noted that people could also find useful resources through the Henri Nouwen network.
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