'Blue Christmas' Services Offer Alternative Refuge From Holiday Cheer Loss and pain are especially hard amidst the joy and tinsel of the holidays. A growing number of churches are offering "Blue Christmas" services to hold a space for often unwelcome feelings.

'Blue Christmas' Services Offer Refuge From Holiday Cheer

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Winter solstice today, the longest night of the year. And across the country, some churches offer Blue Christmas services, setting aside the tinsel and acknowledging the darkness. Deena Prichep reports from Portland, Ore.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Carolyn Nelson's husband died 15 years ago. And she misses him, especially around the holidays.

CAROLYN NELSON: You know, that's someone I celebrated with. And when that's gone, you feel lost. It can be a hard time for people.

PRICHEP: And it's even harder when the world is full of songs and presents and family gatherings.

NELSON: Because you're supposed to be happy and joyful. And, of course, I do lots of fun things. But there's just a little bit that's missing.

PRICHEP: So six or seven years ago, Nelson started attending the Longest Night service at her Episcopal church. Also called Blue Christmas, these services are usually held on the solstice, though some, like here at Portland's First Congregational Church, are a bit earlier.

JANET PARKER: We hope that you will find this a moment of light in darkness.

PRICHEP: The format varies from church to church, but the common theme is dropping the usual merry and bright and recognizing the hard stuff. People offer prayers and light candles and open up to the sadness they're carrying about loss, relationships, addiction. That's what Pastor Christy Dirren does at West Portland United Methodist Church.

CHRISTY DIRREN: We acknowledge these things are tough. But you're not going through it alone.

PRICHEP: At her service, people write down things they're struggling with. And then everyone's invited to grab some of these notes, literally lifting someone else's burden, and hang them on the church garland.

DIRREN: And it's not putting our sorrow on display. It is inviting us to remember that it's all part of the experience.

BEN STEWART: So there's this sense at Christmas that God's own self identifies with that kind of aloneness and comes to be with people.

PRICHEP: Ben Stewart teaches worship at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He says that in the calendar of 2,000 years ago, December 25 was the solstice, the actual longest night. Stewart says these are environmental realities - it's cold and dark - and theological realities - how to acknowledge the darkness and the fragile light.

STEWART: How do we hold together the kind of wonder at a little infant child and still make sure that we're challenging the Herods of the world who would oppress children?

PRICHEP: Stewart says all of us will be touched by darkness, if we're not living it right now. And if you look at the Christmas story, full of joyful promise, the darkness is there as well.

STEWART: I think about the hymn that was popularized by Mahalia Jackson, "Sweet Little Jesus Boy." The world treats you mean, Lord. Treats me mean, too. But that's how things are down here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET LITTLE JESUS BOY")

MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) But that's how things are down here.

STEWART: At its deepest level, I think the Christmas gospels tell the story of God's entrance into this world from the underside. And when all of us gather there together and the marginalized are in the center, that's the promise of Christmas.

PRICHEP: Stewart says that to realize this promise, Christians need liturgies and theologies deep enough to hold the darkness, the blues alongside the Christmas joy. But, he says, it's a deep, hopeful, midnight blue, one that has us looking toward the dawn.

For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep in Portland, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILENT NIGHT")

JACKSON: (Singing) Silent night, holy night.

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