Churches Help Fight the Blues at Christmas

While the holidays are a time of joy for many, they're a source of depression and anxiety for others. A growing number of churches are acknowledging this and holding special services called "Blue Christmas" to help people cope.

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This is the time of the year when news people often say there's no news. It's rarely true. Even setting aside the wars and the political campaigns, the holidays are not a happy time for many people. And some churches are responding with special services they call Blue Christmas.

We're going to drop in on such a service at an Episcopal church in the nation's capital. Here's NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: If you came to last Thursday's service at St. John's Episcopal Church in search of Christmas carols, you had come to the wrong place. In the dimly lit chapel, two dozen wooden chairs faced a rough-hewn manger, empty but for a little straw.

Albert Scariato, the priest in-charge, opened with an explanation.

Reverend Dr. ALBERT SCARIATO (Priest-in-Charge, St. John's Episcopal Church, Washington, D.C.): Here we are in this room tonight, about a dozen of us, sharing a service known as a Blue Christmas service for people who don't feel very happy or think that they're going to have a holy, jolly Christmas.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: This is the first year Scariato has held a Blue Christmas or what he calls an empty-manger service.

Rev. Dr. SCARIATO: When you listen to the Christmas carols, let none of you dismay. Well, you know, it's kind of hard not to dismay. People are being killed and maimed in Iraq. People are losing faith in the political system. They're losing faith in other human beings, period.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: And he says more people in the churches are looking at the dark side of Christmas.

Rev. Dr. SCARIATO: It's kind of one of the sort of out-of-the-closet things. People feel more comfortable saying, you know, bah humbug, you know? I'm really not into this.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: For those people, the hymns are sung in minor key. The readings speak of the grave and grief.

Unidentified Woman: When our hearts seem to fade, our energy seems to dissipate...

BRADLEY HAGERTY: As the service unfolds, a couple of people cry softly. There's a Kleenex box on every fourth chair. But slowly, the gloom in the chapel lifts as the pastors and other congregants light candle after candle at the altar.

(Soundbite of music)

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Scariato tells the congregation of his own empty manger time, the Christmas of 1993, soon after his partner died. But in that moment of brokenness, he says, he found a God who salved his wounds and gave him strength. Then he holds up a basket with paper and pens.

Rev. Dr. SCARIATO: At this time, a basket is going to be passed around to write down our cares and concerns and to put them in the empty manger.

(Soundbite of music)

BRADLEY HAGERTY: He says later, the handwritten cares will be torn off and burned as a, quote, "fragrant offering to God."

(Soundbite of music)

BRADLEY HAGERTY: As the service ends, the worshipers gaze at the manger, now filled with their pain and pleas.

Outside, Mary Bird(ph), an only child with no children of her own, has been looking for a service like this since her husband died several years ago.

Ms. MARY BIRD: And not having a close family for the holidays, people just assume that you're taken care of - and sometimes you're not. So it's a tremendously, wonderfully quieting time, I think.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: As it was for Susan and John Sanders(ph) who married 14 years ago.

Ms. SUSAN SANDERS: Well, we've had several losses in the family in the last two years - my sister and both my parents. John lost his parents.

Mr. JOHN SANDERS: I lost my parents about five years ago.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: You know, you looked at the empty manger. Did that do anything for you?

Ms. SANDERS: That's all bleaker than I feel. You know, there's a lot of sorrow this time of the year, but from what I've learned about grief is that you can have great joy in the middle of grief.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: And Reverend Scariato notes, even the first Christmas was a little bleak.

Rev. Dr. SCARIATO: You have an unwed mother, probably a confused, poor Joseph riding a donkey, going to Bethlehem. They don't have a place to stay. They stay in, probably, a smelly old cave with smelly animals, and put their newborn babe in a feeding trough, and who comes by to say hello but shepherds.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: But even in that impoverished moment, Christians believe a miracle occurred - that God broke into human history in the form of a babe. And that miracle, Scariato says, is a message of hope that sustains believers during even the bluest of Christmases.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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