RICHMOND, Va. – There were no jolly Christmas carols at the Cannon Memorial Chapel. No brilliant poinsettias or festive branches of holly. No smiling faces or hearty wishes of happiness.
Instead, melancholy piano music echoed through the hushed church. Dead branches were lain on a table covered in blue cloth, representing the "winter of our souls." Men and women held each other and cried.
"This is not a traditional Christmas service," chaplain Kate O'Dwyer Randall said Tuesday, opening the University of Richmond's nondenominational "Blue Christmas" service, which drew around 60 people.
Somber Blue Christmas services are being held at many churches around the country this year, in recognition of what psychologists have long known: that the contrived good cheer of the holiday season can actually make some people who are dealing with heartbreak feel worse. The Blue Christmas services confront feelings of grief and loss head-on.
"Holidays in our culture are often about families, and families are not always happy institutions," said O'Dwyer Randall, who once worked as a grief counselor. "I think that particularly if you're facing a death or a divorce, the 'empty chair syndrome' becomes very real at this time of year."
This is the first Christmas in a long time that 77-year-old Charles Minter Jr. will have to celebrate without Barbara, whom he married 19 days after they met and stayed with for "57 years, four months and three days." In May, she succumbed to cancer.
"I hate the holidays. I see the lights and Christmas — I just get the chills," he said. "I hope this is going to help."
Sharon Van de Walle's husband of 40 years died suddenly earlier this month.
"This just is a preparation for Christmas, which is going to be rather difficult," she said tearfully.
"And it's a good place to have a cry and no one will mind," her friend, Anita McCabe, said as she embraced her.
The "Blue Christmas" concept serves an important function for those who have lost loved ones, O'Dwyer Randall said. "The biggest sigh of relief for people who are grieving comes when you name it. When you say, `Hey, you're probably having a hard year.' When you say the person's name," she said.
Christine Moll, a mental health counselor in Buffalo, N.Y., who has helped two churches develop holiday programs for depressed parishioners, said that all the holiday cheer can make people dealing with death, divorce or family dysfunction feel more out of place, and more miserable.
"All the glitz, the tinsel, and what have you, the decorations, conjure up that we all need to be having some sort of Norman Rockwell experience," she said.
The Rev. Emily Richards, pastor of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Ridgefield, Conn., said there has been a huge response to her church's first Blue Christmas service.
"We have to have the perfect Christmas and we have to be happy this time of year — when the reality is that we're not," she said. "This is an opportunity for people to come and be in the presence of God and acknowledge their grief and despair and loneliness and give it to God."
Some churches refer to such programs as "Longest Night" services and hold them on the shortest day — and therefore, the longest night — of the year. This year, that falls on Thursday.
"I find in my ministry that there's quite a bit of pastoral work to be done in December. It just seems that whatever griefs or pain people have increase in this time," said Rev. Cynthia Maybeck, pastor of the Trinity Church of Northborough, Mass., which has been offering such services for more than a decade. "Everything on the commercials is `Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas, such a season of tidings and great joy' — and there's a lot of people whose hearts are breaking."