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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, December 21, 2002

Services soothe during a Blue Christmas

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post

WASHINGTON — They sang "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," lit Advent candles and listened to St. Luke's story about the birth of Jesus. But the 20 Presbyterians who gathered recently for "a different service of worship for Christmas" also recalled lost loved ones, the trauma of losing a job and the pain of poor health.

"Perhaps the empty chair at the table is too much to bear ... perhaps the illness has just taken too much of a toll on your body ... perhaps the fog of depression has returned," the Rev. Diane Walton Hendricks suggested to her subdued audience. "And in this time of caroling and revelry, when everyone else is ho-ho-ho-ing, the pain and loss is even harder to bear."

The service at Little Falls Presbyterian Church, where Hendricks is associate pastor, is part of a spreading Christmas tradition in Protestant churches. More quiet and reflective than the traditional liturgies of Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, these so-called Blue Christmas services are for people often overlooked at this time of year: those who just can't get into the merriment of the season for whatever reason.

Whether it is the first Christmas after the death of a spouse, a recent divorce, a diagnosis of cancer, deep family rifts or the deployment of a loved one to the Middle East, many people find the holidays a time of distress. Blue Christmas services are intended to acknowledge that sadness and to offer comfort.

"My grandfather died in May, and this will be the first Christmas without him," said a tearful Carlin Schwartz, 24, a schoolteacher in Arlington County, Va., who attended the Little Falls service. "I thought it would be easier to do all the other Christmas stuff if I could get the sadness part out of the way first."

Others say they are drawn to such services because they are overwhelmed by holiday stress and fatigue, or alienated by the commercialization of the season.

The origins of Blue Christmas services are unclear. Some pastors report holding them for more than a decade. But they seemed to gain steam after 1996, when a prototype liturgy for such services was included in "Whole People of God," a Sunday school curriculum used by many Protestant churches in Canada and the United States.

The Rev. Bass Mitchell, a United Methodist pastor in Hot Springs, Va., believes the name may have been inspired by the song "Blue Christmas," made famous by Elvis Presley.