Rev. Gerry Michalski at Soul Sanctuary, left, in Winnipeg is photographed with Julia and Kevin Garratt prior to their recording of their Blue Christmas service Saturday, December 12, 2020. The Garratts spent thirty years working in China on humanitarian and social projects until one day they were taken into custody and spent the following two years in a Chinese prison. Blue Christmas services are subdued, low key services for those struggling with grief during the holidays, and this year they’re being held online due to the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Rev. Gerry Michalski at Soul Sanctuary, left, in Winnipeg is photographed with Julia and Kevin Garratt prior to their recording of their Blue Christmas service Saturday, December 12, 2020. The Garratts spent thirty years working in China on humanitarian and social projects until one day they were taken into custody and spent the following two years in a Chinese prison. Blue Christmas services are subdued, low key services for those struggling with grief during the holidays, and this year they’re being held online due to the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

‘So much loss:’ Blue Christmas services go virtual during COVID-19 pandemic

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, people would trickle into a dim and quiet Winnipeg church on one of the longest nights of the year to lament their losses by lighting candles, praying together and sometimes writing out their feelings and shredding the paper.

Soul Sanctuary is one of many churches across Canada to hold annual Blue Christmas services, sombre and subdued evenings for anyone experiencing grief or sadness around the holidays.

On Dec. 21, the winter solstice, Soul Sanctuary is holding a virtual Blue Christmas service, because the pandemic has made it unsafe to gather in person.

“Like everybody else, we’re walking through this and just trying to bring a little bit of light into the tunnel,” said lead pastor Gerry Michalski.

There will be singing, reflections on Scripture and the opportunity for people to speak one on one with pastors.

There will also be a recorded talk by Kevin and Julia Garratt, who wrote a book about their time in Chinese detention. For about three decades, the Canadian couple lived in China, where they did Christian aid work and ran a coffee shop. They were arrested in 2014 on spying accusations.

“They know what it’s like being locked up at Christmas,” said Michalski. “There’s nothing greater than the power of story.”

At Sherwood Park Alliance Church, east of Edmonton, a typical Christmas service attracts about 4,000 people, but Blue Christmas gets a small fraction of that.

Between 25 and 35 are expected for the church’s virtual offering on Wednesday, said lead pastor Greg Hochhalter.

The service is an extension of weekly online gatherings the church has held throughout the pandemic to provide spiritual and mental-health support, he said.

“It’s sort of become part of our new rhythm,” said Hochhalter. “Maybe you can even call it part of our new normal to provide regular gathering points for people who just need a place to go and process their loss.”

Hochhalter said he wants his congregants to know whatever they are feeling is valid.

“There’s a lot of prayers that sometimes seem like they’re bouncing off the ceiling and falling to the floor and maybe God doesn’t seem like he’s responding in the way you would hope,” he said.

“It’s OK to be mad at God. We give people permission to walk through lament, if that’s what they need to do.”

In British Columbia, Kamloops United Church held its online Blue Christmas service on Dec. 1 and posted a video to YouTube for congregants to watch any time.

Participants were invited to light candles to acknowledge loss of life, livelihood, love and liveliness. A fifth candle was lit to express hope for more light.

“This year especially, the time of pandemic, we’re feeling a lot of losses,” said Rev. Michael Caveney.

“We are feeling the loss of mobility. We’re not able to travel around as we would like. We’re feeling the loss of our families. We can’t go and visit our families for Christmas.”

Islington United Church in Toronto held a 45-minute online Blue Christmas last Wednesday with 50 participants.

There were readings, prayers and an invitation to light candles at home. People could linger afterwards to hear piano music or break out into one-on-one prayer sessions.

“There’s so much loss and it’s hard to name that, because people are soldiering through,” said lead minister Rev. Maya Landell.

“It’s not only the people we’ve lost to death, but there’s just so much loss of connection and regular activity. It can be a really heavy burden to carry alone.

“We’re each losing something and we’re each trying to find hope for the next day.”

Landell said the colour blue not only represents sadness but is also associated with the Advent period leading up to Christmas and the Virgin Mary.

“And it’s the colour of the sky when the light dawns,” said Landell. “It’s the sense that the new thing is coming.”

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