by Kathleen Kastilahn

Betty Landis recalls the December some dozen years ago when, as a seminarian, she struggled with four diagnoses of cancer in her family. It’s also when she first attended a Blue Christmas service.

“I soaked it in,” Landis said.

Now pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Evanston, Ill., Landis joins with other area ELCA clergy in her area each Advent to offer this liturgy in a shared evening service.

The welcome to worship  explains that the “Blue Christmas service…grows out of an understanding that for many of us,

Christmas is a time of worry, isolation and even sadness. Family expectations, community expectations, even church expectations can become overwhelming: we remember loved ones who are no longer with us. We see the energy of the season distorted and exploited by commercialism. We look for a break—not a longer ‘to do’ list.”

I heard these words for the first time last year at the service Landis helped lead at Grace Lutheran Church in Evanston. They took me back to a December long ago that began with a diagnosis of pneumonia, complete with my doctor’s firm instruction to go to bed—and stay there for three weeks.

Were it not for my nursing baby, I would have been sent to the hospital, my doctor said. The pneumonia was viral, not bacterial, so there was no medicine. “Rest, rest, rest” was the prescription. Part of me was relieved: I’d spiraled down to exhaustion. The other part was panicked: I wouldn’t be able to make Christmas “merry and bright.” No cards, no cookies, no wrapping (or buying) gifts. I wouldn’t be able to make Christmas, period.

I recall only snippets of the days that followed. The mom of my four-year-old son’s best preschool buddy picked him up each morning, delivered him late in the day after play time at their house and stayed one afternoon to change the sheets on our bed. Friends heading up the smorgasbord preparations at church still made time to deliver suppers. My husband, of course, worked the “night shift” after getting home from work.

I kept watch from the window across from the bed. The days grew shorter, darker. Then, perhaps, just a smidgen, lighter. I started to feel better. My lungs cleared.

I was “released,” and on the mild and sunny afternoon of Christmas Eve, I went outside for a short walk. Our parents would come the next day and bring dinner.

A happy ending: Christmas came—even though I couldn’t make it merry and bright. It came in God’s love, through others. That’s how Christmas always comes. Despite our sorrow and despair, through tears, we glimpse God’s love.

I tasted it many years later, at my mother’s December 17 memorial-service reception. Her circle friends, all 80-plus years old, ignored my plea to simply order from the bakery and instead put plates of their best homemade Christmas cookies on the table.

I heard it when my dad died exactly three years later. The nursing aides at his retirement home told me how they appreciated caring for him during his last month: “We kept him safe.”

Then there was no Blue Christmas liturgy. Some ELCA congregations, among various others, offered versions in the 2000s. Now the Augsburg Fortress worship resource “Sundays and Seasons” provides suggestions for an evening service of “longing and hope”—including prayers, scripture readings and hymns. “In the gathering darkness of December, we anticipate the coming again of the Light of the world,” the introduction reminds worship leaders. “It may be that…hope is the very remedy we need for what makes us feel ‘blue’ at Christmas.”

Those who’ve attended the Evanston Blue Christmas services are welcomed into a calm and supportive community, said Daniel Ruen, pastor of Grace.

They’re asked to consider: “In my life, what area of darkness most needs Christ’s light?” Later in the service, they place a slip of paper with their answer at the foot of the cross.

Sometimes he knows what struggle brings a person to the service in an effort to put those things that “don’t fit” into Christmas back into it , Ruen said. But not always.

“It’s my sense that the service is very much needed by those who attend,” Ruen said. “They tell me they are struck by the power of words, by the stillness.”

Landis believes that’s it more than a bit ironic when she hears that it’s a lack of time that often keeps people from coming to this service designed to be a respite from the overwhelming expectations of the season.

You can’t force them, she said. “There has to be a little spark.”

She was that spark for me last December when she asked if I’d again tell the story of how my own experiences of dark blue days shape the way I prepare for Christmas and the way I celebrate. I’d shared it already at St. Paul’s Advent vespers.

I explained how grateful I’ve been these past several decades for knowing that though joy is not always in our own world as we get ready to celebrate the holiday, Christmas comes. It comes because Jesus comes: Joy to the world!

Landis puts it this way: “Christmas isn’t a time of tinsel and glitz, happy and clappy.”

No. Christmas is blue, true blue.

Kathleen Kastilahn belongs to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Evanston, Illinois. A life-long resident of the Chicago area, she enjoys walking along the shore of the ever-changing Lake Michigan.

This article is excerpted from the December 2016 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.