We celebrate Christmas on December 25, but that is not when Jesus was most likely born. The Gospel of Luke says, “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luk 2:8).
If Luke is correct, this would place his birth between February and April, when the ewes give birth to their lambs. This is when shepherds had to watch them all night, to be ready to assist the laboring sheep. This begs the question, why do we celebrate on December 25?
In about 312 AD, Constantine became emperor of Rome. He credited a key victory over his rival to a vision of the cross. He wanted to make an official holiday for Jesus’ birth. Mithras, a Persian deity, was also popular in the empire. His devotees celebrated his birthday on December 25. Constantine thought celebrating Jesus’ birth on the same day would help unify the people.
It also corresponded with the winter solstice and the Unconquered Sun celebration. People then like today noticed the days getting shorter until the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. It was as if the sun was weakening over months, maybe dying. Just when hope was at its lowest, the sun would gather its strength, and the days started getting longer again. The sun was still unconquered.
The Longest Night of the Year
Some churches have taken this idea of the longest night and made services around that theme. The idea is to give people who are depressed, lonely, and grieving during the holidays a chance to acknowledge those feelings. In my own denomination (PCUSA), only about 25% of congregations offer this type of service. I have never been to one. Here is what I’ve learned so far.
- They may be called Blue Christmas or Longest Night services. I think the Longest Night is a more appropriate name. As one pastor said, “When you hear, ‘Come to the Blue Christmas’ service, you might think it is a service where you will get depressed.” That is not the impression they want to give.
- In some churches, the Advent candles of hope, peace, joy, and love, are extinguished. For the Longest Night, they are replaced by hopelessness, fear, grief, and loneliness. This is not to depress people but to give them a chance to acknowledge these feelings.
- Some churches have Parish Nurses plan and participate in the services.
Even though many acknowledge the need for a service like this during the holidays, attendance is often low. When one associate pastor of a congregation with 1,500 members proposed the idea, the members overwhelmingly approved it. But at the service itself, only twenty-five attended. Despite putting more effort into publicizing it and explaining the purpose, next year was the same. When asked why, people said they were not depressed, so they did not think this service was for them.
This is less than two percent of the congregation. The percentage of people living with depression is much greater than that. This points to a larger problem, not only in the church but in society as a whole. It is still difficult for many people to acknowledge depression and the feelings associated with it, especially during the holidays. As one pastor said, “People are really unwilling to self-identify as grieving. People seem to prefer to think of themselves as independent and self-reliant and all those ‘boot strappy’ words that are part of our American ideal.”
Another said, “We as a culture tend to overlook the people who are grieving, who are lonely, especially at this time of year.”
In light of this, churches may have a better response if they focus on healing for others. Most people are more willing to come on behalf of a friend of family member who has experienced loss than for themselves.
Christmas on the Longest Night
Even though it is not historically accurate, Christmas on or near the longest night of the year fits spiritually. On Christmas, we celebrate the eternal Word of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In him was the same light that was with God in the beginning. And like the unconquered sun, even though the light may be hidden, it has always been and will always be there. The light shines brightest in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
In his flesh, Jesus experienced all the hopelessness, fear, grief, and loneliness you or I ever have. He is present to walk with us through our darkness and pain until we see the light again. Knowing this has not cancelled out the light represented in Advent, Christmas, and Easter services for me. It has made them meaningful at a deeper level.
One pastor said it very well. “The Incarnation is a reason for celebration that God loved us so much that God sent Jesus to be with us, but it is also a reason for celebration that Jesus came to walk with us through the pains of life as well. I wish we could better hold these two messages together.”
Grace and peace to you.
Dunigan, E. (Oct. 26, 2018). “Blue Christmas: ‘Tis the season—for depression.” Presbyterians Today.
Download a copy of a Blue Christmas liturgy here.