Blue Christmas

DEBORAH POTTER, correspondent: Everywhere you look it’s “happy holiday” time, and despite the bad economy shoppers are still buying. After all, it’s the “most wonderful time of the year,” as that old Christmas song puts it, with everyone telling you “be of good cheer.” But for some people, the season is not merry and bright. For Kate O’Dwyer Randall, Christmas is a time for missing her brother, Jim, who died of a sudden heart attack five years ago at the age of 37.

KATE O’DWYER RANDALL (Associate University Chaplain, University of Richmond): If you’re grieving, there’s always the sense that there’s a chair there that’s empty, that the person that was here once, last year, is no longer here. It’s personal, and it’s private, and it’s very pronounced.

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Kate O’Dwyer Randall

POTTER: But Randall does not grieve alone. On this day in early December, a small group gathers for a special service at Cannon Memorial Chapel on the campus of the University of Richmond, where Randall is associate chaplain.

RANDALL (speaking to congregation): Friends, welcome to Blue Christmas. We’re so glad that you’ve joined us, and we’re so sorry for the reasons that you have.

POTTER: Susie Reid came to mourn the death of her brother, Billy, just six weeks ago.

SUSIE REID: I thought this would be a good way to kind of accept that the holidays are here and that we’re going to have them, you know, without Billy this year, and just be with other people who are also, you know, that understand, you know, that sometimes the holidays are not happy.

CARNISHA JONES (speaking to congregation): I’m not really a singer, but I thought I would share what’s in my heart.

POTTER: Carnisha Jones is mourning the death of her mother.

JONES (singing): Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long, long way from home.

POTTER: Others have brought their own private pain to the service, one of hundreds being held in churches across the country this month for people facing the holidays with a heavy heart.

RANDALL: People can be honest about that grief, so they don’t have to go and sing “Jingle Bells.” They can actually come and cry with other people who are grieving. The church is going to say we’re not going to give you a platitude. We’re going to say to you this is hard, and God is in the midst of this, and this is hard—all at the same time.

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POTTER: The interfaith service is quiet and simple. There are no scripture readings, just personal stories and poems.

ELIZABETH BOONE (speaking before the congregation): My God, you call to me in the silence: Do not be afraid. I am with you. And I answer behind tears: I’m trying. Stay there.

RANDALL (speaking to congregation): We feel, particularly in this season, that grief is permanent and hope is fleeting, but I encourage you and remind you today that it’s actually the other way around.

POTTER: Randall invites everyone to light a candle, put a name to their grief, and join in saying the names together.

RANDALL: Stay in your seats if you’d like. Think, reflect, and pray. But for those that choose to come forward, your brave statement will be met with the congregants repeating it.

Congregant: I light this for my friend, Patrick.

Congregation: For Patrick.

Congregant: For Valerie.

Congregation: For Valerie.

Congregant: This is for my mom, Addie

Congregation: For Addie.

Congregant: I light this candle for my brother, Billy.

Congregation: For Billy.

POTTER: For four years, Billy Reid battled cancer with his sister by his side. The loss has hit her hard.

post01REID: I had never thought about how true it is that people—I think they think that they’re going to upset you if they mention, you know, the person’s name that’s passed away. It doesn’t. I’d like to hear it. I want to talk about him like he’s, you know, still around, like he’s still important, you know, and not talking about him and not saying his name emphasizes his absence, and lighting a candle in a church, you know, is just very meaningful. And I know he watched me do it.

Singing of “Silent Night.”

RANDALL: Something happens in this service. I don’t know if it’s being with other people who are grieving, or being able to say the name out loud, but something happens in this service every year, and people are so touched and moved. I know it helps healing. I know it helps.

POTTER: As the service ends, the candles burn on.

RANDALL: We thank you for the lives of those that we’ve named today. Let us be people of faith and hope, always and often.

POTTER: There may not be joy this season for many here, but today there is comfort.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Deborah Potter in Richmond, Virginia.

  • Scott

    Honestly, if these types of liturgies are needed in any particular church I would submit that those churches are FAILING to teach a solid grounding in the faith and hope and joy of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  • Drew

    I would submit precisely the opposite: That “these types of liturgies” are helping people toward a solid grounding in faith and hope and joy, and it’s those who feel compelled to criticize an effort to offer compassion and support and love who are on shaky ground.

  • Pamela Karwasinski

    Whild faith, hope, and joy are all well and good, and I believe my sister is in heaven, my earthly imperfection misses her terribly. And I, for one, am grateful for services like this.

  • Sue

    I disagree with Scott. Missing a person, especially around the holidays, does not negate the faith, hope and joy of our Lord Jesus Christ. I lost my mother two years ago. I know she is in a much better place and is with the Lord. It doesn’t lessen the human grief that is felt, especially this time of year when happy memories are there. I miss her terribly. This is especially true for those going through the first Christmas without their loved one. This is is the churches’ way of acknowledging that grief and that Christ is there in our midst grieving with us.

  • marcia

    These services are enormously helpful. There can be a good deal of guilt when we have the prospect of fun and a memory of loss or trouble. I think these services are an oppty to acknowledge that these are complicated emotions. I go because it allows me to accept and then put aside some of the sadness of the season that comes from past years’ events. Honestly, these services remind me that God gives us what we can handle, but we don’t have to handle it alone.

  • Chris Lewis

    I would like to ask “Scott”, who criticized the need for a “Blue Christmas” service, to share on this site his worst loss he has ever suffered.

  • John C

    To: Scott
    From: Jesus

    John 11:35.

  • Shannon

    What a lovely idea. Holidays can be very difficult, and they can be most difficult on those who do not have family or friends to share them with. I wish I had seen such services offered years before. Going through difficult times, I always felt that attending services alone and depressed was one of the most difficult things to do over the holidays.

  • Elizabeth

    I lost my father in Dec. of 1995 and it is still a loss i feel very much. Blue Christmas is something that I feel many people can go to and feel that pain, that loss and admit that its something we still carry and there is nothing wrong with that. Blue Christmas is not a reflection on the Churches that provide them. Its a way for those Churches to remind people that they are not alone in their loss.

  • AdAstra47

    This is really nothing new. The Catholic church has had this tradition entrenched for over a thousand years: the Nov. 2 Feast of All Souls. Before the holiday season, as we come to the darkest days of the year, we gather to remember all who have died, and remind ourselves that even in darkness there’s hope. My parish church always has a beautiful, moving service where, as described above, people can light a candle and say the name of their deceased loved ones. People always say it’s a very cleansing and healing experience, not just to remember their own loved one, but to be with others who have suffered a similar loss and are experiencing the same emotions, to support them & be supported by them.

  • Rose

    I love this I really do!! Think this is a wonderful idea. Thank you for doing this.
    I’ve a friend who just lost her hubby 3 months ago, and she is deeply grieving. Doesn’t want to go out and nothing.
    I think she’d ‘enjoy’ this kind of service, because right now she doesn’t enjoy anything at all.
    I had dreamed of her the night before, therefore was prompted to call. What was weird, when I told my Son, he had dreamed of her Daughter the same night. Again, thank you for doing this!!

    @Scott… be watchful for your words and what you say, it’ll come back to you! Everything has a place and reason, and yes, even God, God most of all understands!!

  • Hanna Jagow

    During the 80′s I worked in a large urban church. Many in that congregation struggled through the holidays, and it had nothing to do with their faith. When people we love are no longer with us, we hurt. It is both unhealthy and a little insane not to honor that pain. Yes, we grieve as those who have hope, but if we had no pain we wouldn’t need the hope, so it is not anti-Christ to grieve. It just is.