Russell Brace thinks about his mother when he sees the nativity that was special to her. She was a wonderful cook, he says, so the smell of cookies baking also brings back memories.
Before she died about five years ago, she loved baking Christmas dinners, playing Christmas music and decorating for the holiday.
That can make Christmas a difficult time of year for Brace, even though he’s grown past the initial hurt of his mother’s death.
It’s not just having lost a loved one that makes the Christmas season difficult, Brace says: Sometimes daily living, financial difficulties and commercialization also add up to make the season less than merry and bright.
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There’s also seasonal depression, which about 5 percent of the U.S. population experience in a given year.
“Not everybody is all holly jolly this time of year, for different reasons,” Brace said. “I think there’s a little bit of that maybe in all of us, a little bit, because we’ve had things in our past that bring back memories.”
Several churches are trying to meet the needs of people who don’t necessarily want to sing “Joy to the World” this holiday season by offering Blue Christmas worship services.
The service is more subdued, often candlelit, sometimes reflecting on themes of loss and hope in Jesus.
“Everywhere they go they’re expected to sing carols and be happy, and this is not that place,” said Leslie Coates, director of first connections at First United Methodist Church.
At Reformation Lutheran Church, the Blue Christmas service will include communion and quieter Christmas music like “Silent Night.” It will include readings about God’s love and how Jesus wept at the loss of his friend Lazarus.
The Rev. Mari Larson, senior pastor at Reformation Lutheran, said many people are struggling with depression, other health issues, the loss of a loved one or the loss of a job.
“Christmas just feels alien to them,” Larson said. “Many have told me and other pastors they won’t be joining us for Christmas Eve services because they just can’t do it. … The whole world is cheery and they’re not, and they feel like they don’t belong.”
Just how many people feel “blue” during the holidays isn’t clear. A survey by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner research published at the American Psychological Association’s website found that about 68 percent of respondents said they often or sometimes felt fatigue during the holidays (another 25 percent just answered often). The survey also found that 36 percent said they often or sometimes felt sad during the holidays (7 percent just answered often) and 26 percent said they often or sometimes feel loneliness (7 percent answered often).
Dr. Matthew Macaluso, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Kansas School of Medicine – Wichita, said cold weather and less sunlight both contribute to depression.
“It’s getting darker out, it’s getting colder out, more people are starting to feel depressed simply because of that and yet as a society we’re putting up lights, spreading cheer,” Macaluso said. “It’s difficult for people who feel sad or depressed around Christmastime when they look around and everybody else is happy but they are not.”
The good news is that talking with a doctor, finding appropriate antidepressant medications or starting something like light therapy can help dramatically, Macaluso said.
He also thinks that offering a space — such as a Blue Christmas worship service — to acknowledge the difficulty in this time of year can help.
What helps Cam Wilson get through the Christmas season is remembering the good years with her husband, who passed away in 2014.
They were married for 44 years and dated for three years before marrying.
“We spent a lot of Christmases together, so there’s a lot of memories there,” she said.
She has a Christmas ornament on her tree that honors him, and she often tells stories about him with friends.
At the Blue Christmas worship service at Reformation Lutheran, Wilson expects people will find commonality. Sharing the experience of loss or another struggle will be meaningful this season, she said.
The Rev. Amy Foster, pastor of Dawson United Methodist Church, quoted another pastor who once said, “The real meaning of Christmas is not presents, it’s more like being met with hope and light in your darkness.”
“Especially in churches and as we celebrate Advent or Christmas, we’re taught, we hear it’s the most wonderful time of the year,” Foster said. “I think there’s a lot of self imposed pressure to be happy, to put on a happy face even if you’re hurting or broken on the inside.”
Instead, people should acknowledge the hurt or a loss, she said.
“Chances are if you’re feeling bleak or isolated or lonely, someone else is too,” Foster said. “Maybe find some way to assist someone else during the holiday season.”
Blue Christmas services
▪ Reformation Lutheran Church: Saturday, Dec. 16, 5:30 p.m. 7601 E. 13th St. N.
▪ Dawson United Methodist Church: Sunday, Dec. 17 at 4 p.m., 2741 S. Laura.
▪ First United Methodist Church: Wednesday, Dec. 20, 7 p.m. 330 N. Broadway St.