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Longest Night services hope to be holiday refuge

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By Julie Muhlstein
Herald Columnist
Donna Vande Kieft calls it the elephant in the room -- especially at a time when that room is decked out for a merry.
"People feel down, a little alone," said Vande Kieft, a chaplain with Providence Hospice and Home Care of Snohomish County. "We've all had enough losses, enough reality. We know Christmastime is not a happy time for everyone."
Vande Kieft is among organizers of an annual Longest Night Service meant to help people through their seasonal sadness. The service at Cedar Cross United Methodist Church in Mill Creek is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday -- the day of the winter solstice, which has the year's shortest period of daylight.
It's one of several such gatherings in the area offering a special kind of holiday refuge. Everett's Trinity Episcopal Church will hold its Longest Night "Blue" Eucharist at 7 p.m. Friday, and a Blue Christmas Service is set for 7 p.m. Sunday at Stanwood United Methodist Church.
We are a nation in grief, mourning since Friday's shooting deaths of 20 schoolchildren and six adults in Newtown, Conn. Longest night services this year will recognize pain being endured 3,000 miles away, as well as personal struggles of people in the pews here.
"We have a need to do something. That's what makes us human," Vande Kieft said.
On the evening of the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Vande Kieft went to a gathering of chaplains and social workers. It had been planned as a festive gift exchange, yet the host began with the day's devastating news. "She said 'I can't not acknowledge this,'" Vande Kieft said.
Using a tray with small candles, guests lit candles for people killed at the school. "It was so powerful," Vande Kieft said. One person lit a candle for the shooter. "We didn't even know his name," she said.
A Longest Night service is a similar ritual. "It takes a moment, in a time we're trying to make happy and joyful, to say there are some things not right in our world," Vande Kieft said.
The mood of the Cedar Cross service will be contemplative, with quiet music and a dimly lit sanctuary. People will be welcomed with prayer shawls, a symbol of being wrapped in love and comfort.
"The service will look at some of the Scriptures proclaiming the light of Christ coming," Vande Kieft said. It is a Christian service, but people of all backgrounds are welcome to participate as much as they like. They will be invited to come forward to light candles for individual losses, or for any intention.
It's not only the death of a loved one that brings on holiday blues. People miss Christmases of childhood, or the way things were before a divorce or before children grew up and moved away. "Everything changes. There are people who are hurting," Vande Kieft said.
At Everett's Trinity Episcopal Church, this will be the second year for a Longest Night "Blue" Eucharist service. The Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, church pastor, said the gathering helps people find peace during the holidays.
"We have lost three parishioners this month. This gives our community a chance, in the heart of this joyous time, to recognize grief," Taber-Hamilton said. When we accept sadness, she said, "I think it creates the permission emotionally to move into Christmas Day, to celebrate the victory of life."
"Our challenge in any journey of darkness is to find the courage to lift up voices of hope and compassion, so we're not left in that darkness," Taber-Hamilton said.
At Trinity, too, all are welcome. There will be an opportunity to come forward and light a memorial candle, and also to take Holy Communion. But if people only want to sit quietly, listening to somber carols, "they can come and kind of hide," Taber-Hamilton said. Each one will leave with a gift of a small silver bell, she said.
"Coming together in community is so powerful," Vande Kieft said. "Even though we live in such a busy, connected world, we still have so much disconnection. People feel isolated -- especially at this time of year."

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460,
3 services planned
Several area churches will hold services acknowledging sadness during the Christmas season:
Longest Night Service: 7 p.m. Friday, Cedar Cross United Methodist Church, 1210 132nd St. SE, Mill Creek.
Longest Night "Blue" Eucharist: 7 p.m. Friday, Trinity Episcopal Church, 2301 Hoyt Ave., Everett.
Blue Christmas Service: 7 p.m. Sunday, Stanwood United Methodist Church, 27128 102nd Drive NW, Stanwood.
Story tags » ChurchesChristmasMental health

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