It was Christmas-time 1959, and the young Scottish preacher, David Searle, was hitch-hiking from London to his home in Arbroath for the Christmas holiday. As the day wore on he found himself between lifts in Carlisle as the light faded. In the cold of the evening as he made his way on foot through the streets towards the road north, he found himself glancing into people’s living rooms, often noticing families gathered around a blazing fire or sitting in jolly fashion around a meal table. It seemed to him looking in that everyone was happy, warm and content, and that he alone, was cold and hungry on the outside, a spectator of these happy scenes.
More often than we in the church like to imagine, a good number, even amongst our own people, feel the same about Christmas. Everyone else seems to be enjoying the time of year, but more than a few find themselves looking wistfully on. Any sense of aloneness is heightened at this time of year. Even knowing that the Saviour suffered rejection, the thought that ‘he came unto his own, but his own did not receive him’ does little to comfort.
Struggles at Christmas time
Literature is full of examples of people struggling in the festive season. In Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales some bystanders find their loneliness exacerbated and their bereavement accentuated as they watch others do their Christmas shopping, speak of going to parties and viewing Christmas films with friends. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s sense of being as light as a feather, as happy as an angel, as merry as a schoolboy, as happy as a drunken man, with whoop thrown in for good measure seems impossible to emulate, and instead of elation, gloom envelopes him.
The poet, John Greenleaf Whittier caught the sense many feel as they visualise the empty chair at the Christmas table once occupied by a loved one:
I long for household voices gone,
For vanished smiles I long…
It’s not just those in the throes of deep dementia who call out in desperation for a long-gone parent or other loved one. The struggle to appear upbeat so as not to cast a gloom on the Christmas celebrations in church and amongst family and friends is all too real.
Amidst the delight of singing carols, the joy of hearing the Christmas story that the gospels relate and the wonder at the fulfilment of age-old prophecy, churches need to remember that amongst those who listen with believing ears and open hearts, there will be some with an aching void that only the most sensitive of fellow worshippers will pick up on.
All too often, we overlook the fact that after the first Christmas innocent children lost their lives as a result of Herod’s tyranny, and we forget that grief was a part of the first Christmas too. The carol, It came upon a midnight clear, reminds us that for some, even Christmas day is spent under some form of crushing weight.
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow.
A Blue Christmas service
In recent years some church leaders have begun to recognise that, for some of their congregants, Christmas is an inward and outward struggle and have created a ‘Blue Christmas’ service amongst the variety of carol services that lead up to Christmas Day. Simply by verbalising that not everyone is full of the joys of Christmas will help some authenticate their inner feelings. As Anthony and Melanie Bash say in one of their Reflections for Advent, ‘Suffering and Christmas can go together, and they did go together at the first Christmas. More often than we think they do go together.’
After nearly fifty years of arranging Christmas services that began almost as soon as the calendar turned to December, it only dawned on me that such a service might be helpful, after I attended one in Llanelli Free Evangelical Church shortly after retiring in 2017. Exporting the idea to Mancot in Flintshire, I found the opportunity to introduce a Blue Christmas theme to the carol service held just prior to Christmas Eve, with a focus on personal losses alongside the joys of celebrating Christmas. It resonated with people both inside and outside the church.
In a Blue Christmas service it might be helpful to offer everyone the opportunity to write the name of a loved one on a blue Christmas decoration that they can hang on a Christmas tree or in another spot in church. Alternatively, inviting people to hand in the names of loved ones they wish to remember at Christmas time which could be scrolled on a screen or mentioned in prayer during a service may appeal. Whilst we don’t want to mislead people into thinking that we pray for the dead, spoken or shared memories of those we have ‘lost and loved awhile’ in this way bring comfort.
As she left one such Blue Christmas service, a lady was overheard saying, ‘That was Christmas for me.’ Her husband’s depression had darkened their marriage, and ‘Longest Night’ as this church had called their service, allowed her to hope for light to return. Another couple sat and silently wept as they remembered family who had died during the year.
There’s no need to do anything radical in a Blue Christmas service, but recognising that some people do feel blue at Christmas and responding with a sensitively aimed service may be as appealing to that section of people as a Toy Service or a Nativity Play is a draw to others.
Those who organise a Blue Christmas service will want to include a message or sermon that acknowledges the needs of those who feel low. If the words Blue Christmas conjure up more memories of Elvis than Christmas, try creating an alternative name, or look online for suggestions. There are plenty of ideas for services there, and many are very easy to adapt.
Just as many were surprised to hear the late Queen describe 1992 as her ‘annus horribilis’, or horrible year, the church needs to remember that sooner or later everyone has such a year at some stage in their life. As the Lord Jesus often drew alongside the widow, the outsider and the outcast with compassion, so churches can show Christlike pastoral care to those who need to find ‘rest beside the weary road’ at Christmas.