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When you think about it, it’s kind of strange that the most festive time of year is also the darkest. As fall sets in, the nights grow progressively longer until they swallow much of the day. People compensate by stringing cheerful Christmas lights that glow into the darkness or snuggling up to a blazing fire, but even so, the shadows get to most of us.
Far from being only a winter phenomenon, the change of light begins at the summer solstice. It’s true – on the first day of summer the days already begin to shorten. Slowly they shrink until the first day of fall, the autumnal equinox, when day and night are exactly the same length. Still the nights lengthen until the winter solstice, the first day of winter, arrives, and the northern hemisphere of the earth experiences its longest night.
This year, as typically happens, the longest night will fall on Dec. 21. After that, though the cold lingers for another two or three months, the night begins to recede.
Holiday grieving
Despite the jolly overtones of the season, many people find themselves unable to be merry as Christmas approaches. Often, the holidays instead serve as a painful reminder of loved ones they have lost. While those around focus on what is present in the season – family, laughter, friends – the bereaved can’t help but see what is absent. Everything becomes different: Certain traditions are no longer the same without their champion carrying them forward; perfect gifts are stumbled upon but their would-be recipient no longer lives. People mourn.
Because of this, when the winter solstice and Christmas draw near, many churches hold Services of the Longest Night in the hopes of providing comfort to those experiencing darkness. This year, Salem United Methodist Church (Salem UMC) in Palmyra hosted a Christmas Comfort Service on Wednesday, Dec. 18 at 7 p.m. The service was written and led by the Rev. Judy DeBres, a part-time hospice chaplain and volunteer chaplain at the University of Virginia Medical Center.
“There are a lot of people grieving at Christmastime,” DeBres said, “and it can be difficult when there is so much happiness everywhere, in your face, and you don’t know how to deal with it. In the movie We Bought a Zoo, a girl who has lost her mother says, ‘The neighbors’ happy is too loud.’ That’s a perfect way to explain how so many people feel this time of year.”
The subdued, candlelit service was a place, DeBres hoped, “where people can go and experience traditional Christmas elements in a different atmosphere, and receive their peace and comfort a different way.”
Salem UMC’s senior pastor, the Rev. Drew Willson, agreed. “This time of year is tougher than most of us like to admit. It’s a season of growing darkness, both literal and emotional. Our culture…teaches us to seek hope in bright lights, buying gifts, and staying busy, but our souls require different work. Instead of always running away, we have to spend some time in the darkness. In a sense, we need to regain our night vision, to see once again what St. John called ‘the light that shines in the darkness, [that] the darkness cannot overcome.’”
Longest Night
After the winter solstice, the northern hemisphere grows colder. Though the longest night has passed, the cumulative effects of so little light freeze the ground further. It can be hard to realize that daylight is slowly returning when the world around still looks so bleak. But eventually, gradually, the earth warms to the returning sunlight. And when the night no longer dominates the day, by definition, spring has arrived.
Though many see the joy of Christmas during this time of year, others see the cold of the longest night. Willson knows this, and says, “There is real hope in tough times – new life in the silent night – and that’s what this Christmas Comfort Service is for.”
St. Paul’s Memorial Church, near U.Va. in Charlottesville, will also hold a Service of the Longest Night on Friday, Dec. 20 at 7 p.m.