Colorado Church’s Blue Christmas Offers Space to Grieve, Means to Hope
By Sarah Hunnicutt
Choirs and nativity scenes, hot cocoa and Hallmark movies, twinkling lights and family dinners—these are some of the beautiful things so often associated with the winter holiday season. Angel anthems, guiding stars, and new life wrapped up in swaddling clothes invite humanity to gather, to give thanks, and to be totally immersed in joy. But what happens when hearts find themselves without a song and wandering along, still looking for the manger, stuck in the bleak mid-winter?
When Peak Community Church in Fort Collins, Colorado, first began offering their “longest night,” or “Blue Christmas,” services nine years ago, it was meant “to make space for people to feel what they’re feeling,” said Pastor Eddy Hopkins. “Quite a lot of people were not feeling the Christmas spirit and didn’t feel like they had space to [express those feelings] in the church. It’s unfortunate people don’t associate grieving and church. The Psalms are 40-percent lament. It’s part of our tradition.”
Peak Community Church and Pastor Eddy have been intentional over the past several years to make space for the range of emotions that are part of the human experience and incorporate the tradition of lament, not only at Christmas, but also throughout the year in all their services. “What we’re trying to do is break down the barrier between church and mental health to where they’re not seen as two separate areas. It’s not all peppy on a Sunday, and it’s not always aimed primarily at inspiration. There are different keys for different registers. The Psalms are my guide [for helping people] bring their full selves.”
While Peak Community Church invites and encourages the complexity of emotions to be expressed throughout the year, Blue Christmas is a special time offered specifically during the holiday season when grief and pain can often manifest and spill out in new or unexpected ways. Some years the turnout has been greater than others but, according to Eddy, “It doesn’t bother me at all [when few people come]. We do things because they’re the right thing to do.”
“Blue Christmas isn’t a break from church,” said Eddy. It’s another form of worshipping God. “It’s a church service,” he continued. “We sing. We read Scripture. I teach. Sometimes I will read a poem.” Instead of taking Communion, which is a regular practice at Peak Community Church services, participants in Blue Christmas are given the opportunity to express their grief. “We take a bundle of branches that looks like a small barren tree. Everyone is given a leaf-shaped paper [that represents their hurt] to hang on the tree. By the end it has leaves. It brings hope.”
The overarching theme of Blue Christmas is solidarity and finding the hope that accompanies it—God coming to earth as a baby in solidarity with his creation; the church being in solidarity with the broken, hurting, and helpless in their congregation and community; the connections created when people come together and pray, cry, and hang their pain on delicate branches. Blue Christmas is meant to remind people that “God is grieving with you. God is with you. You’re not alone.”
As people move through grief and into hope, what was initially a very personal experience of searching for solace and healing often becomes a catalyst for creating space for collective grieving “for people’s broken lives and systems of injustice” and movement towards reconciliation, justice, and hope for the surrounding community. “In Fort Collins, we’re in very close proximity to people who are unhoused and who are now part of our congregation. Because we tell the truth about what the world is like when [difficult, painful experiences] come up, nobody is afraid to jump in. This is what it means to follow Jesus.”
The first Christmas invited a small gathering of common laborers, a pregnant teenager, a carpenter, and wanderers to witness and experience heaven’s gift to humanity. They came with varying degrees of heartache and uncertainty, life’s burdens and society’s judgments, and their own expectations. A manger became an altar that called to grieving hearts to look into the face of hope, and believe.
That’s the invitation of Peak Community Church and Eddy each time the doors are open and, especially, each Blue Christmas. “It’s hope against hope—you may have no evidence for hope, but you still hope. I don’t want to leave people in grief. I want people to move towards hope.”
For those interested in learning more about “longest night” services, or specifically Peak Community Church’s Blue Christmas, contact Eddy at email@example.com.
Sarah Hunnicutt recently served the Church of God as a missionary for Global Strategy to Roatan, Honduras. She also serves as a freelance writer for Church of God Ministries.
Learn more about the Church of God movement at www.JesusIsTheSubject.org.