'Tis the season to be jolly, right? Not everyone, though, has a rousing
For Ernestine Whiting, 86, this Christmas feels lonelier than ever.
Her husband of nearly six decades, Edward, died last year, and Whiting has felt hard hit in recent months. She also struggles with arthritis and a hoarse voice that prevents her from whistling for cardinals - a talent her husband admired.
"Everything is different," the Malvern widow said Sunday afternoon just before attending "Blue Christmas - the Longest Night Service" at the United Methodist Church in Paoli. The special observance is for people who need spiritual solace more than spiritual celebration during the long, dark nights of the Christmas season.
More and more houses of worship around the region are holding intimate, somber services for those who have suffered loss or great difficulty and may not feel all merry good cheer. Likewise, a group held its first "Lights in the Darkness" Hanukkah program for Jews facing grief.
For Whiting, there was comfort in the understated quiet of the 40-minute program she attended. She said the litany had reminded her "that God is steadfast. When I get down, I pray, 'Thank you.' "
Blue Christmas services are not celebratory, but rather acknowledge sorrow and emphasize consoling readings in a subdued setting of plaintive hymns, soft lighting and silent worship. Often they are held on or near tomorrow's winter solstice, the longest night of the year, as a metaphor for the despair many experience.
While parts of the country have long offered such programs, pastors say the concept has gained wider acceptance in the Philadelphia area in more recent years.
"It's an idea that seems to have caught on," said the Rev. Sandra Forrester Dufresne, senior pastor at Jarrettown United Methodist Church in Dresher.
A flyer for its third Blue Christmas, on Wednesday evening, emphasized that "for some, the approaching holidays bring forth feelings of depression, sadness, fear and anxiety. . . . Come and be comforted in the company of those who walk the same road."
Despite the melancholy tone, "it's a service of hope," Dufresne said, one embodied in a passage she planned to read from Matthew:
"When burdens get piled on top of other burdens, the load can crush us. In his promise, Jesus offers to help us carry those burdens."
For many, life's darkness - a loved one dies, a job is lost, a marriage fails - can feel particularly heavy at a time of so much joy for others.
"We need to acknowledge, as a church, that reality," said Randy Schaffer, a lay minister of spirituality for Elam United Methodist Church in Glen Mills, which held a Blue Christmas service last week. "We're becoming more like the body of Christ. We're not expected, even as Christians, to have lives completely joy-filled and without difficulty."
First United Methodist Church of Phoenixville plans to hold its "Blue Christmas: The Service of the Longest Night" at 7 p.m. Sunday. "To some extent, the church is reclaiming its role in healing and caring," said the Rev. Bronwyn Yocum, the senior pastor.
A couple whose son committed suicide and a woman whose friend died of breast cancer have attended in the past, Yocum said. But the reason to attend "doesn't always have to be about death," Yocum said.
Typically at Blue Christmas, the exuberance of "Joy to the World" gives way to the quiet expectation of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" or the humble "In the Bleak Midwinter." The litany grants the dread of that longest night and then reveals the hope of the light.
At some churches, a Christmas tree may be decorated with soft-blue bulbs, or candles may be lit in memory of loved ones.
Phyllis Patton attended her first alternative service two years ago at the Phoenixville church after her mother, Catherine Gardner, died at 95.
"I just miss her," Patton, 79, said. "We had so many special things our family did at Christmas."
The small, simple service offers a chance to "just sit there and meditate on all the beauty," she said, "and what Christmas is."
Lynn Degler, 64, of Phoenixville, is one of those who attend not out of sadness but to counter the frenzy of gift-giving and celebration.
"It's pure and uncomplicated worship," she said. "The atmosphere is peaceful and unblemished, much like the first Christmas." A service where even the lighting in the sanctuary is softer, she said, proves "cleansing."
Pastor Bonnie Moore plans to preside over Shenkel United Church of Christ's first "Longest Night Service" in Pottstown on tonight.
"Personally, I like it so much because it's a very quiet, hope-filled service," said Moore, who has conducted Blue Christmas services at other churches. "God's presence is very real."
Other faiths also acknowledge grief this time of year. On Dec. 11, the Jewish Hospice Network of the Joan Grossman Center for Chaplaincy and Healing in Elkins Park held its first "Lights in the Darkness" for Jews struggling with despair during Hanukkah's festiveness.
"People are really fragile around this time," said Rabbi Tsurah August, hospice chaplain with Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia, who led the lighting of candles. "It's a program that really honors . . . the mourning process itself."
In Paoli, Whiting and the only other participant, widow Carmen Riale, settled in the second pew, each clutching the program's blue pages.
In its sixth year, the service attracts from two to more than a dozen people, the Rev. Charles Cole said earlier.
He said he planned to use the opportunity to tell the parts of the Christmas story that are "not peaches and cream. Heaven's sake, the baby was born in the middle of a dirty cattle barn."
On this dreary afternoon, the sanctuary's decorations - a brightly lit Christmas tree, giant wreaths, grand poinsettia display - were not altered. Rather, the service was an "opportunity to redeem the setting," Cole said. He spoke of the "short days and long nights, of gray and white and cold," and asked God to "teach us the lessons of endings, children growing, friends leaving, loved ones dying, grieving over, grudges over" and the "lessons of beginnings . . . a new song, a deeper relationship, a fuller love."
The haunting melodies of "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem" filled the church.
Cole offered litanies for the darkest night and the dawning of hope: "God comes to redeem you, to save you, to restore you."
The four candles of the Advent wreath - arranged on a table carved with the words
- were lit not for faith, hope, peace and joy, but to remember those loved and lost, to redeem the pain of loss, to remember our sorrow and "those who stood with us" and, finally, "to remember our faith and the gift of hope."
The Blue Christmas service over, the two widows embraced, gray heads bowed.