‘Blue Christmas’ services offer space for feelings of grief and loss during holidays

Churches across PC(USA) acknowledge pain amidst the joy of Advent and Christmas

December 4, 2015

The sanctuary of FPC Lancaster, Pa., set up for its 2014 Blue Christmas service.

The sanctuary of FPC Lancaster, Pa., set up for its 2014 Blue Christmas service. —Alisa Bair


‘Tis the season to be jolly. But not for some.

“If someone is already struggling—with financial problems, broken relationships, unresolved grief—he or she is likely to find further alienation in the relentless joy and cheer of the Christmas season, particularly as it is often misconstrued in television specials and marketing campaigns,” says the Rev. David Gambrell, associate for worship in the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s office of Theology and Worship. “Longest Night and Blue Christmas services represent one way of responding to this significant pastoral concern.” 

Gambrell, a published hymn and liturgy writer who serves as editor of the quarterly journal, Call to Worship, suggests that worship planners avail themselves of resources—including a Blue Christmas service on the PC(USA) website—to address people’s pain at this time of year.

“Planners of worship would also be well advised to take advantage of the pastoral opportunities already present in the church’s ancient season of Advent,” Gambrell says. “Far more than a ‘countdown to Christmas,’ Advent is a time of longing for Christ’s peace, justice, wholeness and reconciliation—in personal and public spheres. Advent prayers of confession, intercession, supplication and lament provide another way of answering the same pastoral need.”

Gambrell is a frequent contributor to the worship and congregational life of Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Ky., which has offered an annual Longest Night service since 2008.

This year, Highland’s service will be held Monday, Dec. 21, at 6:30 p.m., the date of the winter solstice or longest night of the year. The service typically includes instrumental meditations, songs, scripture readings, reflections—poetry or other meditations—an opportunity for personal prayer and anointing, and an opportunity to light a candle as a gesture of prayer or remembrance.

“Those who attend these services seem to be moved most often by a personal sense of darkness or loss,” says Carol Pye, a ruling elder who co-chairs the church’s worship committee and coordinates Highland’s Longest Night service. “However, our prayers and reflections do include the darkness of social issues and global unrest. Paris and San Bernardino will certainly be on our hearts this year." 

The Rev. Don Hackett, pastor for Missional Ventures at the First Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, Pa., says that his congregation first heard of Blue Christmas back in 2005 at an Advent workshop at the Parish Resource Center in Lancaster.

“St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in North Vancouver, B.C., had posted their service online, so we took their lead and shaped our own service,” says Hackett. “Our hope was to provide holy quiet space for the greater Lancaster community in an often hectic, and for some, difficult emotional holiday season. Whereas this service has a special heart for those suffering loss of a loved one, we acknowledge that the loss of innocence, job, ability and sense of safety in the world are very hard as well.”

Hackett says that over the ten years since the 800-member congregation started its Blue Christmas service, the church’s former director of music, Alisa Bair, its director of pastoral care, Candee Buckbee, as well as his wife, Rila Hackett, a pianist and reader, along with artists, Stephen ministers, members of the church’s healing prayer team and its hospitality team “have wonderfully woven together a rich variety of music, dance, drama, short readings, prayers and hospitality to give this service deep beauty and palpable peace.”

About 90 people regularly attend First Church’s Blue Christmas service, which will be held this year on Sunday, Dec. 6, at 4:00 p.m.

For the Rev. Matthew Pigman, associate pastor for Youth, Young Adults and Worship Ministries at the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville (N.J.), this will be his fourth Blue Christmas service since joining the staff.

“Advent is certainly an appropriate time for joy, but for many, it is also a season that brings forth difficult memories or sadness,” says Pigman. “We hold this service every year so that those for whom the season can be difficult may find space for lament and seek hope in the Advent story. Our hope is that in the midst of the parties, the hymn-sings, the Christmas pageants and the family dinners, this service might provide a meaningful space and time that might be otherwise difficult to find."

This year’s Blue Christmas service, which will include music from professional jazz pianist, Tara Buzash, testimonies and prayer, will be held on Sunday, Dec. 13, at 5:00 p.m. in the chapel of the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville.

Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church, also in Louisville, Ky., has a long history of offering contemplative prayer services. Although the church has offered occasional Taizé services, in the fall of 2011 the worship committee got more intentional about holding a Taizé Healing and Peace Service on a regular basis. After starting out with a quarterly service, the church found they were needed more often, changing the frequency to 6 times a year in the months of February, April, June, August, October, and December.

“In 2012, we began offering a special service entitled, ‘Blue Christmas: A service of solace,’” says Dana Sue Walker, a ruling elder at Crescent Hill, who has served for many years on the church’s worship committee and coordinates these services. “This particular service has become our most well-attended Healing and Peace Service. Each year we give everyone a ‘vial of tears’ for them to hold and reflect upon. They then empty their tears into the river/bowl. They are then given the opportunity to light a candle as a symbol of hope. We believe this service meets a deep need for many of our members, as well as friends from the neighborhood and other churches.”

This year, “Blue Christmas—A service of solace” will be held on Wednesday, Dec. 16, at 7:00 p.m.

“We offer worshipers an opportunity to speak with an elder more in depth after the service, if requested,” Walker says. “Everyone is welcome, whether they have a personal need for healing, have a loved one suffering, or they simply need a time of silence, reflection and peace. Lots of silence. We find there can never be enough silence built into the service.”

  1. What perfect timing! I am looking for a church in Portland, Oregon that is doing a Blue Christmas service. This is for a friend who is struggling with grief over the recent loss of her father. Can someone make a recommendation that I can pass on to her? Thanks!

    by Kathy Carrasco

    December 5, 2015

  2. Newlonsburg Church in Murrysville, PA has had a Blue Christmas service for the last 5 years. We have a soloist and a sax quartet of high school students from our music academy. We have a candlelighting portion and folks may take a candle home. Stephen ministers are present. We specifically invite those who have had a loss (death, job, divorce, etc.) with a mailed invitation. Even those who like "regular" Christmas services appreciate the quiet, reflective nature of this "Xmas in another key" and some have been helped with grief long silenced but still alive. We offer this worship the Sunday evening closest to the longest night.

    by Marnie Silbert

    December 4, 2015

  3. At our church in Billings, Montana, we distribute angel ornaments made by Sunday school youth to everyone attending the Blue Christmas service. Folks like having something to take home and having others with whom they can share what can be a tough time -- Advent.

    by Mike Ferguson

    December 4, 2015

  4. I honestly never understood this tradition, at least as sometimes articulated. Why would we wall off the sad from everyone else? How does that work for the depressed adolescent, whose family drags him to the regular Christmas service. Advent a "time of joy?" -- gosh, not according to the texts. Do we make a mistake in suggesting the feast day of the Incarnation is all happy, and therefore we need an alternative? Both Easter and Christmas have to wrestle with doubt and unfinished business. Maybe its the phony ginned-up merriness that people are looking to avoid -- but that's not inherent in the theological meanings of the seasons at all. Moreover, when do we ever not have people present filled with a personal sense of darkness and loss.

    by Paula

    December 4, 2015

  5. Thank you for this excellent article. We have done this special service now in two churches. We invite everyone who has had a loved one die in the past year to it. Carolyn Winfrey Gillette has written hymns for this service, here is the most popular one: How Can We Sing a Joyful Song? O WALY WALY ("Though I May Speak") How can we sing a joyful song? O God, our sorrows hem us in. When pain and grief seem all too strong, How can we sing a joyful hymn? The world around finds songs to sing Of laughter, mirth and happiness, But these sound false and even sting When what we feel is deep distress. And yet, O God, we dare to sing For in our grief, we're not alone. You love this world and entered in By sending us your only Son. You sent us hope — Emmanuel! O God-with-us, you bore our pain. And so we sing, for all is well! In Christ, we will be whole again. Biblical References: Psalms 137:1-6; John 3:16; Matthew 1:23 Tune: Traditional English melody ("Though I May Speak") (MIDI) Text: Copyright © 2009 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved. Email: bcgillette@comcast.net New Hymns: www.carolynshymns.com Go to this web site for more hymns and print resources: http://www.carolynshymns.com/how_can_we_sing_a_joyful_song.html

    by Bruce Gillette

    December 4, 2015