Darkness amidst “merry and bright”
Some of us might probably associate “Blue Christmas” with the velvety baritone of legendary American crooner, Jim Reeves.
It’s one of the tracks featured in his album “12 Songs of Christmas” that I grew up with, and which gets extended airplay during Advent in my home.
The song itself is about the pain of unrequited love during the holiday season.
But beneath the schmalzy lyrics and melody is perhaps a painful truth for many: they may truly be feeling blue at Christmas and not for the reason the lyrics suggest.
Somehow the commercialisation of Christmas often buries the season of Advent underneath a veneer of glitter and gaiety that makes it difficult for anyone to express themselves to the contrary without being christened a Scrooge and a Grinch.
Yet, there is indeed a day recognised as Blue Christmas in the western tradition to acknowledge that some of us may be floundering in very dark spaces during the festive season due to painful life events such as death, disease, poverty or abuse. And that the healthiest way to deal with such feelings is to acknowledge that all is not well.
Some stories state that this tradition began in British Columbia in the late 1980s, where it reportedly originated in the hospice community, and eventually began gaining popularity in some churches in the 1990s.
Also known as the Longest Night, it is a day in the season of Advent, which as its name suggests, marks the longest night of the year. This is usually on or around 21 December which marks the winter solstice when the sun shines shortest.
The idea of commemorating Blue Christmas is to acknowledge that feeling devoid of joy or hope isn’t out of place during the “season to be jolly”; that you don’t constantly have to put on a front of normalcy if your life right now is anything but.
On this day, some churches (depending on denominations) hold services that honour people who have lost loved ones in that year - similar to an All Soul's Day service. Empty chairs may be placed in a space as a way of commemorating those who have passed on during the year. Other features include lighting candles, playing music in minor keys, observing periods of silence, and using time to privately share specific causes of sadness and fears (maybe, by writing notes and placing them on a “tree”).
Scripture readings and prayers focus on the “light in the darkness,” the hope of faith. This doesn’t mean hope that the suffering will pass, but rather hope that enables people to acknowledge their true feelings and walk through the dark days without fear.
Interestingly, 21 December is also the traditional feast day for Saint Thomas the Apostle for whom the term “Doubting Thomas” was coined.
The symbolisms couldn’t be starker: Thomas’s struggle to believe the tale of Jesus’ resurrection; days start getting longer again after the 21st. They somehow suggest that no matter how dark and rudderless life may feel at present, one needs to hold on to hope and faith that this too shall – and will – pass.
And if you ask me, it couldn’t be more relevant this year. Each of us has been affected in some way by the pandemic that has had us in its cruel grip since 2020 began.
Some of us may have lost loved ones; some of us may have seen the breakdown of relationships caused by stress; some of us may have lost our jobs; and some of us may be overwhelmed with information overload and weariness.
And many of us may not even see the point of celebrating simply for the sake of celebrating.
If you find yourself ticking any or all of these situations, then perhaps attending a Blue Christmas service or initiating your own ritual might help you through this difficult period. And hopefully you find some comfort in knowing that you’re not alone.
Before I end my final instalment for this year, let me leave you with a thought-provoking line from my favourite poet, Mary Oliver:
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.”
I wish you a blessed Christmas, a peaceful holiday season, and renewed hope and vigour to face the New Year.