It’s essential to have options at church when it comes to Christmas. I’m thinking specifically of options appropriate for those who mourn. Or those who want some peace.
As a priest, I am swamped in the weeks before the holidays with requests for pastoral care. Nor are those requests a random thing. Instead, they reflect the distress many feel at this time of year.
The stress and pain of the holidays can have several causes:
- For some, it’s the memory of those they have lost.
- For others, pressure to live up to expectations, real or imagined.
- Some find work distressing, particularly accountants, sales reps, and retail workers, and others who face additional pressure at the end of the year.
- Still others face children home from school at a time when work when days are short and dark.
- Many find time with extended family distressing. In every family, there is an Uncle Waldo who gets drunk at Christmas dinner, berates everyone who didn’t vote for Trump, gasses on about conspiracies and tells the two-year-olds there’s no Santa. Somehow, the universe is just wired that way.
- And for the elderly, the sick, shut-ins, and singles, the holidays can be devastatingly lonely.
In other words, for many, the holidays are anything but joyous.
I’d also note that for those who have experienced sexual, spiritual, or other abuse, Christmas can be profoundly triggering. Given the prevalence of abuse in our society, it’s a safe bet that there are plenty in our congregations for whom this is the case, even though they may never say anything about it. So it pays to tread carefully.
Appropriate pastoral response
So how do we respond?
Some denominations host a “Blue Christmas,” often on the shortest day of the year. I’m not a fan, both because of the name and because it’s not held on Christmas Day. In other words, those who aren’t ready to celebrate a noisy, joyous Christmas should not get relegated to the back of the bus. Nor should we slap the label “Blue” on things. Doing so is an oversimplification of a complicated time of year for many.
My approach has been to hold a Quiet Christmas service. All are welcome, although I clarify that the service likely won’t appeal to kids.
My sermon’s also completely different. I don’t recycle my Christmas sermon, instead completely revamping my approach..
Typically, I start with the notion of a light in the darkness. That light brings meaning and hope. But it doesn’t make the darkness go away or negate the night.
Then we talk about the feelings of pain and loss that can emerge at Christmas, how ubiquitous they are, and how we can deal with those feelings in the context of Christmas,
In many ways, it’s an easy sermon for me because listening to the pain of my parishioners and community members in the weeks before Christmas weighs heavily on me. Yes, there is hope in the darkness, but it isn’t easy to see for many. And for many, especially those who have lost a spouse, the loneliness can be overwhelming.
We have no Christmas carols, no singing, and no organ music. Just quiet togetherness.
I’ve also invited folks to share their experiences during the service. That can be cathartic for all involved, especially once people realize how common their feelings are. In doing that, it’s good to ask in advance at least one person whom you know would find value in sharing their experiences. That way, the door is opened, and you’re not left with awkward silence.
Ironically, Quiet Christmas is our fastest-growing service. It’s even becoming popular with the Christmas and Easter Christians. That surprises me since many churches go all-out for Christmas. But there is a certain quiet centeredness that serves as a sea of tranquility in the Christmas uproar.
In short, it’s more of a collective counseling session than a Christmas extravaganza, and that’s okay.
It’s telling, too — many times, pastoral appointments set for right after the holiday cancel. When I call to check in, many say their concerns were answered during the service or they met compatible souls at the service with whom they are spending time.
So, my plea to all clergy is this: Make sure you leave room for those who aren’t ready to celebrate. Even those who enjoy Christmas can find the noisy triumphalism hard to take after a while.
Nor do you have to be unhappy to find Quiet Christmas helpful. Yes, I enjoy the crowds and the excitement at the other services, and the joy can be palpable. And I love my job and the people in my church. But it’s also exhausting to have so many people tugging at me, many of whom I know I won’t see again until Easter, if then.
A final suggestion to fellow clergy: Don’t take the week after Christmas off, even if your letter of agreement allows it.
The days following Christmas can be a big letdown for people, and there is a surge in depression for many. Indeed, the joy of seeing grandchildren can make the post-Christmas quiet doubly painful for the elderly and shut-in.
So your phone may not be ringing off the hook, but it’s a great time to visit the elderly and shut-ins. Call around, invite people to drop by, send notes to people, send thank you messages to parishioners who worked hard to make Christmas happen, and more. It’s a great time to deepen relationships, ask questions, and engage one-on-one.
Wishing you all peace and love this holiday season.