From the middle of November, shops, media and advertising collude to convince us that Christmas is magical, full of joy and fulfilment. Cares are banished and laughing children reinforce the message that sadness and anxiety have no place in the festivities.
But what if bereavement means that sorrow is the overwhelming emotion felt at Christmas? How do you observe it then? Three years ago, my church came across ‘Blue Christmas’, an American service specifically designed for those whose mood is ‘blue’ in this season. We conduct many funerals during the year, so decided to hold an Anglicised version to meet the needs of those who felt on the edge of seasonal merriment because of bereavement.
First we changed the name. The Elvis overtones of Blue Christmas didn’t seem right. So we called it Longest Night and chose to hold it on the longest night of the year, 21st December.
The service itself is very simple – a mixture of carols (sometimes just selected verses) and readings to narrate the Christmas story; prayers which acknowledge pain and emptiness alongside the Christian hope; a reflection which gently speaks of light in darkness. We keep the length to no more than 40 minutes, and leave times of silence, not rushing to fill every moment with word or song. We also stay seated throughout the whole service, to avoid any embarrassment of knowing when to stand.
As people arrive, each is given a service sheet with all the words and instructions needed, along with a candle. Quiet music plays for about 10/15 minutes before the advertised start time with the leader is place to create a calm, safe atmosphere.
Near the start, we invite people to place their candle near our crib scene as a symbol of the darkness they are carrying. Towards the end, they are invited to come and light it as a sign that even in the darkest night, the light of Christ offers hope. There was no pressure if people did not want to bring their candle or light it, but almost without exception they did so.
We did very little advertising the first year and yet people came – some whom we knew, others who had no previous contact with our church. Many stayed sitting quietly in the church after we had finished, and we tried to ensure they did not feel that they had to hurry away.
“That was Christmas for me,” said one woman as she left. Her husband’s depression had darkened their marriage, and Longest Night allowed her to hope for light to return. Another couple sat and silently wept as they remembered family who had died during the year.
December 22nd will be our third Longest Night. It’s our privilege to offer a space where the reality of life with its grief and pain does not have to be left at the church door but can sit alongside the hope and light which is the real heart of Christmas.