Christmas, even in non Covid times, can be a stressful and sad time for many- bereavements, sad memories of Christmases past, financial concerns or family tensions are a sad reality for some. For many this will be a first Christmas without a loved one and for many more of us it will be a time when the normal Christmas traditions that we are used to will be different or perhaps not even celebrated. My mum loved Christmas and I remember the first Christmas after she died (I was in my early 30's) I left the country with a friend to avoid Christmas at all costs- there wouldn't be traditional Christmas trees in Dominican Republic and any Christmas music would have a calypso beat so it was more bearable. At the time my father lived far away from where I did and Dominican was nearer than my father. I escaped every year for five years until I had to face the music-a then student minister cannot avoid Christmas forever. At theological school that year a fellow student gave us a hearty blessing for travel 'to spend Christmas with our families'. Except, all my family was dead, except for my father, who lived so far away and my colleagues well intended blessing cut like a knife.
A few days later I lead my first Christmas Eve in a crowded large country church and tried not to crumble when Silent Night was sung in warm candlelight glow. My mum used to always squeeze my hand tightly when we sang 'mother and child'. There was no way I could stop the silent tears that gratefully, no one could see but God. I chimed a Merry Christmas as people left the church knowing that I purposely was avoiding Christmas like Scrooge because Christmas without my mum was just too painful. As I drove home in the crisp night with the moon casting an entrancing silvery cast onto the snow, I thought to myself I must not be alone in this. So I decided that would be the last year that I would hold myself captive to Christmas in a miserable way.
I'd been to a Blue Christmas before but I always felt like it was meant to cheer me up and if it didn't cheer up I felt even more miserable. The next year my learning site was hosting a Longest Night service- always held on December 21st for people who were bereaved, having a hard time, feeling pressured to be happy at Christmas. There was no intent to cheer people up, the intent was just to be there. So I went. I was allowed to feel sad there- everyone else that was there was sad, too for whatever reason. I realised I didn't go to my father's place for Christmas before because I was embarrassed of my sadness at Christmas and I didn't want to upset his wife talking about happy memories that involved my mum. Of course, that was all in my own head- she wouldn't have been upset at all. After I left the Longest Night service, I felt better. A lot better. I felt like someone had given me permission to honour the sadness within me without judging me. I also felt like I wasn't pressured to have a 'Merry Christmas'. I was going to honour Christmas and that would be enough.
Since then, I have hosted a Longest Night gathering every year and now my Christmas includes familiar decorations and new traditions. It isn't the same with out my mum but I have given myself permission to have a happy Christmas. I'm not betraying those memories by doing so. I still get emotional when Silent Night is played.
The Longest Night is something that can simply 'hold space'. It doesn't need to be about bereavement- it can be about feeling upset at the state of the world. It is a gentle time, not meant to cheer you but a time to give yourself permission to be feeling whatever you are feeling. This year, the Longest Night gathering will be on December 21st at 7pm online/streaming or over the phone. And this year, it's difficult for many with the current situation. So, you're not alone, even if you think you are. You don't need to do anything, just show up. There won't be any Christmas decorations or songs but there will be a way that makes space for those who are seekers, spiritual but not religious and people of faith alike to come together. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for the service codes or more information.
Revd. MacNeill Cooper is the Methodist minister for the Rea Valley area.