Christmas can be anything but the most wonderful time of the year for those suffering from grief and loss, and a number of churches seek to comfort the afflicted with a Blue Christmas service providing a safe place during the Advent season.
Discussing the Dec. 14 Blue Christmas service at First Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., in a Baptist World Alliance podcast, Pastor Julie Pennington-Russell said she wasn’t introduced to the tradition until after her father’s death following a two-year battle with melanoma just before Thanksgiving in 1999.
“All I remember, really, about that holiday season that year — both Thanksgiving and Christmas, and of course that additional fanfare at the new millennium — was that it all went by in this kind of foggy haze,” Pennington-Russell told Trisha Miller Manarin, coordinator of the BWA Division on Mission, Evangelism and Justice. “Our children were little, so I sort of felt the need to press on through Christmas, but the truth is my heart was broken, and the last thing I wanted to do was celebrate.”
What she does remember, Pennington-Russell said “is this strange feeling of hearing everywhere — in the TV commercials, the music, the decorations — this relentlessly energetic, chirpy voice saying, ‘Come on, get in the Christmas spirit.’”
“A colleague of mine on my staff said: ‘You know, years ago I remember going to a service of consolation at this time of year. Maybe we should try something like that.’ And we did our first one,” she said. “It was back in Waco, Texas, and I’ve done one every single year since the year 2000 and have loved it. It’s one of my favorite services of the year.”
Pennington-Russell, who moved to FBC Washington a year ago after eight years as pastor First Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., said because Christmas is a season of family and memories, feelings of grief can feel amplified. “There doesn’t seem to be much room for our grief, so this service provides room for our grief, for sadness, for whatever we happen to be carrying around,” she said.
Jerry Young, interim pastor at Calvary Hill Baptist Church in Fairfax, Va., which held its Comfort for Christmas Mourners service Dec. 7, said this time of year people typically bury their grief because they don’t want to be a burden on others.
“They don’t want their grief, their sorrow, their depression, whatever, to take other people’s Christmas spirit away,” Young said. “So a big part of what I want to do is to give permission to grieve openly and give a forum in which it’s understandable and accepted to share those kind of things, to get them out.”
Young, who first heard about the Blue Christmas concept from a colleague about 20 years ago, said the service also offers the comfort of God’s presence and the presence of others who are going through tough times of their own. “They are really not alone, even though it seems to them like they are,” he said.
Listen to the podcast.