Blue Christmas honors grief and loss during the holidays
"It’s not the most wonderful time of the year for everyone.”
For pastors like Nathan Mattox, this statement is more than a casual acknowledgement; it’s a call to care for those who have experienced loss during the holidays with a special kind of worship service: Blue Christmas.
Blue Christmas services offer people who have experienced loss during the holidays a safe place to grieve. Tulsa-University, the church Mattox pastors, uses the phrases to acknowledge that the holiday season feels painful or empty for a lot of people.
“Whatever the case may be, the holidays can be grief-ridden for some,” Mattox said. “This is the church’s attempt to minister to those people when we, too, are gearing up for the holidays.”
At Tulsa-University, the service is called The Longest Night and is held on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Mattox said meeting together on the longest night of the year to acknowledge the darkness people feel is something attendees find meaningful.
Blue Christmas service styles vary by church. While Mattox prefers to hold the special service in the narthex to represent the emotional distance people may feel during the holidays, Mark Whitley prefers to host “A Service of Long Shadows” in a darkly-lit sanctuary the Sunday evening before Christmas. Whitley, who pastors Collinsville-Meadowcreek, said he kept the sanctuary open for an hour after the service last year and was surprised at how many people chose to stay and sit quietly after the service was over.
“Nobody came forward; those who did went to the altar, not in the back of the sanctuary with the pastor to pray,” Whitley said. “We don’t use the sanctuary as a place of refuge as often as we could to allow the church, unencumbered by worship and preaching, just to be a place of refuge to encounter the holy spirit.”
Jeni Markham Clewell, associate pastor at OKC-Mosaic, said spending Christmas at a hospital while her son was sick made her more aware of how differently people can experience the holiday season.
“There’s a need for people to have an alternative experience when they’re not feeling happy and jolly, and to give them that opportunity in church just makes sense,” Markham Clewell said. “I think it takes courage to go counter to everything about the holidays and say ‘I’m feeling lost’ or ‘I’m feeling sad.’”
The pastors believe there’s a real need for Blue Christmas services to provide safety, encouragement and hope during the holiday season. However, they caution against using the service as an evangelistic or connectional opportunity.
“Create the space and let the liturgy and the silence allow people to encounter the holy spirit and the holy spirit to encounter them,” said Whitley. “It’s not about us being the vessels for healing; it’s about creating the space for the healing to happen, even without us.”
“It’s hard for us as pastors,” Markham Clewell said. “We want to ‘fix’ people who are feeling sad or people who are feeling depressed; just to honor it and acknowledge it is a harder path.”
“Think of this service as a stand-alone gift to the community, not as an entrée to get people to get involved in Christmas Eve or the church,” Mattox said. “It’s not a welcome mat; it’s a source for strength in the midst of the season.”
Resource to develop a Blue Christmas service can be found on the UMC Discipleship website at www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/blue-christmas.