Until last December, I’d never even heard of a Blue Christmas service, but that’s where I landed on a rainy winter day at Salt Spring Island United in Ganges, B.C., the community where I was born. I hadn’t been inside the building in 44 years, since my baptism as an infant. My parents separated soon after, and I grew up in Saskatchewan, where my stepfather farmed. I have a close relationship with my father, a retired master mariner, who continues to live on the West Coast.
I didn’t feel blue the day I stepped back into the church, and I had nothing but joy for the holidays. I unwittingly walked into the service — which supports and comforts those experiencing grief, loss or sadness during the Christmas season — because I’d long wanted to revisit the building, and the date coincided with my trip. What was unexpected turned out to be so much more: uplifting, healing and restorative.
From the moment I entered the warm sanctuary, I was overwhelmed by the gestures of kindness from strangers. One woman said hello before I sat down. Another waved from across the aisle and walked over, smiling and singing as she handed me a hymnbook, open to the song that had already begun. Soon a third parishioner urged me to choose a stone from the basket in her hand for the upcoming stone ceremony.
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As the service progressed, my mind drifted to the image of my young parents in that same space on the day of my baptism, with me as a newborn in their arms. I thought about what their lives were like up to that moment, what they’ve been like since, why they made the choices they made, what experiences in their own past drove them in those directions. I saw them as human, and the warmth of compassion poured over me. I fought hard against the unexpected upwelling of emotion, but it was soon impossible to hold back tears. I was gaining a new understanding of my parents, and releasing unresolved feelings that I had rarely ever acknowledged.
As my mind meandered through these thoughts and emotions, I began counting the blessings I’ve received as a result of their divorce. My mom and dad each remarried and stayed friends. They each had three more children, providing me with six wonderful siblings.
Temporarily lost in these thoughts and frozen in place, I jumped up when I realized I was the last to rise during the stone ceremony and lay my stone in the urn on the altar. I lit and placed a candle in the tray alongside the many others. The minister invited everyone to speak about what the stone they were leaving behind represented. No one accepted, including me. This essay is what I would have said.
The minister moved on to give the benediction and spoke about being filled with light in the darkness, and going forth and sharing light with others. “Blessed are you who bear the light in unbearable times,” she said, “who testify to its endurance amid the unendurable, who bear witness to its persistence when everything seems in shadow and grief. Blessed are you in whom the light lives!” By the end of this Blue Christmas service, a light switched on inside of me.
This article first appeared in Broadview’s December 2020 issue with the title “Unexpected healing.”
Joanne Will is a writer and journalist in Greater Victoria.
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