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 Wednesday night 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 worshipers then rose one by one, took fire from the Advent wreath to light their own candles and placed them upright in a box of sand. As the tiny quilt of flames formed on the table, a deep silence, broken occasionally by soft sobbing, filled the small chapel.
The service at Arlington's 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 one reason or another.
Whether it is the first Christmas after the death of a beloved 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, an Arlington County schoolteacher 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. "I came because it's a wonderful relief from all the glitter and turmoil that's going on now as we come into the last week before Christmas," said Ann Potter, 66, a retired school librarian who had spent the day gift-shopping.
The origins of Blue Christmas services are not clear. 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.
Many churches, including Little Falls, prefer to call them "Longest Night" services because the gatherings are usually held on or near Dec. 21, the winter solstice.
In the Washington area, such services seem most popular among Methodists. "There seems to be a bit more of them this year, from what I'm hearing from colleagues," said the Rev. Rob Vaughn, a United Methodist pastor at Community of Faith in Herndon, which held its first Longest Night service Dec. 16.
Along with Biblical readings and songs stressing God's comfort, the services usually involve lighting candles to mark an important event or the loss of a loved one. Rituals that symbolize hope and encouragement for the participants are another feature.
Nancy Webster, a member of Community of Faith, said the best part of its Longest Night service was when Vaughn invited people to write their reasons for being sad on a piece of paper.
Then they placed the notes into a large glass bowl of water, representing the tears they had shed, "and the words on paper disappeared," Webster recalled. "It was symbolic that the water, the tears that had been shed, were cleansing."
Jocelyn Gabriel, a staff assistant at the International Monetary Fund, said she appreciated the service. "It was comforting to know you're not alone in your grieving and times of depression," said the Herndon resident, whose husband died of cancer 18 months ago and whose mother died of a stroke in September.
Gabriel said she now expects to have a more meaningful and enjoyable worship experience next week.
For the Rev. Mochel Morris, pastor of Christ Crossman United Methodist Church in Falls Church, Christmas has been bittersweet ever since she was in sixth grade in Alabama. That Christmas, as the family gathered to celebrate, her grandparents were in a car accident and her grandfather died the next day.
Because of that experience, the idea of Blue Christmas services resonated with Morris, and she decided in October to do one this year at Crossman, though she opted to name the service "From Darkness to Healing." Then in mid-November, her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and died six days later. "I'm in particular need of this service this year," the pastor said.
Mental health experts say Blue Christmas services meet a widespread need because people's high expectations for happy times during Christmas often are not met, worsening whatever depression or sadness they were already experiencing.
"Our call volume goes up a lot," said Mary Azoy, director of training and community crisis response for CrisisLink, an Arlington-based association of hotlines serving the Washington area. "I'm delighted to know," she added, "that some of the churches are recognizing the part of us that wants to be quiet rather than going out and spending $300 on gifts that nobody wants."
Elizabeth Foss, pastor of Mount Vernon United Methodist Church in Alexandria, will lead her congregation's first Blue Christmas service at 3 p.m. Sunday. Christmas worship services "full of happy jolly music tend to make people who don't have that exuberance within them feel isolated," Foss said. "I want people to be able to tell the truth about what's going on inside of them. I want that to be reflected in the service."
The Web site of Vienna's Church of the Good Shepherd, also United Methodist, is advertising its first Longest Night service -- to be held at 7:30 p.m. Saturday -- as an occasion "to find the meaning and truth behind the bows and packages." The congregation's lay leader, Doug Bursch, will preside.
Participants holding lighted candles will approach the communion rail one by one. "Those who want silent prayer will be directed to one side, and those who want someone to pray with them will be directed to the other side," said the Rev. James R. Noland, Good Shepherd's pastor. Afterward, the candles will be placed on the altar.
The service, which is open to the public, is not just for the grief-stricken, Noland added. "To put it colloquially," he said, "it's for anybody with the holiday blues."