Blue Christmas service set for Dec. 20, 2023

UPDATED Dec. 22: It's the most wonderful time of the year, as the popular song lyric has it -- except when it isn't.

Not everyone has the holiday spirit in December -- and those are precisely the people who were especially welcome at the Park Avenue Congregational Church “Service of Lament and Hope” held Dec. 20.

This opportunity been provided for more than a decade locally and is open to all, because it's needed, according to PACC's spiritual leader, the Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron.

 “I learned about this kind of service, often known as ‘Blue Christmas,’ from a church I served in Atlanta, but PACC has offered it since 2012. The service features music, prayer, time for silent reflection --  and an opportunity to light candles for any kind of loss, struggle or pain people are experiencing,” she said. All were welcome.

“Attendees are invited to participate however they feel comfortable – singing, speaking griefs and hurts aloud, lighting candles or just sitting in silence. The service ends on a hopeful note,” she said.

Leah 250      Rev. Leah Lyman WaldronAll were warmly invited to attend in person at the church, 50 Paul Revere Road, or online by watching on Facebook Live. Anyone interested was invited to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to get the Zoom link.

“PACC is what our denomination calls 'open and affirming' of all genders, sexual orientations, racial identities, abilities, ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, etc.,” Lyman Waldron noted.

Even for someone not personally suffering the blues, she added, attending is “also a great way to be there for a friend who's having a hard time – just sitting with someone else while they feel their feelings is a powerful act of compassion and solidarity.”

 'Unmet needs, old wounds'

A therapist who has long practiced in Arlington, Barbara Schwartz, similarly acknowledged what Lyman Waldron called “feelings that don't always feel at home in this festive season.”

Time spent with family sometimes “brings up unmet needs and old wounds,” said Schwartz, especially when people simultaneously may feel besieged by messages from mass culture and social media that “everybody loves family time and everybody loves holidays.”

Widely available but sometimes glib mental-health advice (“Do what brings you joy!”) can also contribute to a toxic brew, leading people to “feel like there’s something wrong with them,” she said.

Instead, according to both Lyman Waldron and Schwartz, a better approach is to be gentle with yourself.

“Think in advance about what you need, and don’t expect things to go well that historically haven’t,” said Schwartz; if that means curtailing time with family, “state your needs, but be prepared for the reactions you might get.”

New, untraditional traditions

Schwartz 250 adjusted            Barbara Schwartz People grappling with grief or loss of any kind might wish to “take holiday traditions at your own pace (or not at all),” Lyman Waldron said. “Think about creating a new tradition to honor a loved one who has died or to acknowledge a hard season you are in or have made it through -- making a toast or lighting a candle, donating to a loved one's favorite cause or doing a loved one's favorite activity, swapping big festive events for time with just a few friends who know what you're going through.”

She continued, “A friend for whom the holidays are painful because she is estranged from [much of] her family takes her daughter into the city to enjoy a fun day out at Christmas instead of staying home and thinking about all the family-oriented traditions they are missing.”

There’s no magical technique for managing the stress that holidays can bring, Schwartz said. Rather, people can increase the “dose” of whatever they already know helps them: exercise, an artistic passion or the support of a therapist. On the flip side, she said, things can get worse emotionally for people who turn to substances, let social media persuade them that “everybody else is fine” or withdraw completely from others. 

Online/telephone resources

The Internet teems with advice, which can be useful for those weighed down but not flattened by the season. On the other hand, Schwartz emphasized that “if you can’t get out of bed,” the best tool is “a therapist you can really connect with.”

Professional help, both for acute suffering and as a long-term investment, is getting a little easier to find, thanks to resources like William James College’s referral service

 Massachusetts Behavioral Health is at 833-773-2445; its website states that one may call or text. 

The Open Path Collective helps connect patients with affordable therapy.

At any time of year, the national telephone hotline is available for anyone in emotional difficulty, crisis and/or having painful or possibly suicidal thoughts: 988.

Ideas for coping throughout winter

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), in its most typical form, means sadness, lack of energy and other difficulties with day-to-day functioning in the darker months. Here is a description of SAD from a major health organization.

Arlington, in the far northeast of the United States, is likely no exception to the rule that more cases of SAD typically occur the farther a community is from the equator. 

The town's public spaces may help by providing free ways of getting natural light and exercise, which many mainstream health experts say is proven to improve mental health. For example, the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway runs the length of Arlington, is diligently plowed after snow storms and isn’t just for bikes, though pedestrians will be safer and enjoy it more if they keep to the right -- and carry lights at dusk.

At the Alewife Stormwater Wetland, which opened to the public a decade ago at 186 Alewife Brook Parkway just over the town line with Cambridge, the many bird species are easier to see when leaves are off the trees.

On the other side of town, the Arlington Reservoir, 210 Lowell St. near the Lexington line, with its walking path of a little under a mile, seems to draw even more avian species. Hooded mergansers seem to be wintering this year at both sites. “Bald! Eagle! Bald! Eagle!” shouted a woman who was there on Dec. 9 as a hefty specimen of the national bird flew to the edge of the water and stood to be admired. 

Dec. 5, 2023: 1 in 13 Mass. kids face death of parent, sibling by 18: The Children's Room helps

This article by YourArlington freelance writer Catherine Brewster was published Monday, Dec. 18, 2023. It was updated Friday, Dec. 22, 2023, to note that the pastor's preferred family name is Lyman Waldron, and for general minor wordsmithing.