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The colors of Christmas

The traditional colors of Christmas are red and green, “the holly and the ivy” of the English Carol. Then, of course, there’s “white,” of the “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” variety. And black as in the “Black Nativity” — the popular production of Langston Hughes Nativity story, now playing at the Moore Theater.

What about blue? That’s another color for Christmas, made popular by another king, Elvis, who sang, “It’s gonna be a blue Christmas without you.”

These days “blue Christmas” has taken on a life of its own as an increasing number of religious congregations offer Longest Night/ Blue Christmas services or programs, on or around December 21, the longest night of the year.

The idea of the Blue Christmas or Longest Night service is that not everyone finds Christmas the season “to be jolly.” For all sorts of reasons, people may find themselves feeling lonely, wistful, grief-laden or sad in the season of gladness and cheer.

I was recently contacted by an editor who’s thinking ahead to next year and suggesting topics for a book of seasonal reflections and meditations. She wanted to include both sides, or perhaps all the colors, of Christmas, including blue. So her list of topics for reflections/ meditations was, I thought, suggestive and interesting:

“Dreading Going Home”

“I Don’t Have Money”

“I’m Not Invited to Any Parties”

“I’m On a Diet”

“I Hate to Decorate My House”

“It’s My First Christmas Without _______”

There really are lots of things that may trigger a special sadness or grief this time of year and cast a blue shade over things. And I suspect many of you readers can easily add to the list. Another that comes to mind is, “We Just Had a Miscarriage.” And certainly the list ought to include, “I Don’t Have a Job.” Or, “The Office Christmas Party Just Sucks.”

The value of the Blue Christmas/ Longest Night services is at least two-fold. One, it gives people who are experiencing struggles around some of these issues a place to remember and be remembered, a place and time to “tell it like it is” without cover-up or pretense.

The blue Christmas tradition also reminds all of us that there are all sorts of reasons that this season can be hard; that some of the expectations and experiences that bring cheer to many, trigger different and more complicated feelings for others.

The other night I was with a group of carolers who stopped in to sing first at a retirement home and next at a low-income residential facility for people with chronic disabilities and mental illness. Christmas isn’t all good cheer in such settings. Its mixed and often poignant.

But perhaps it is worthwhile to remind ourselves that the first Christmas wasn’t all comfort and joy either. The Christmas story is a nuanced and complex one. It’s not a cover-up of all that is hard in life. It is rather perceiving an outline of grace amid life’s pain and tragedy.

Take the opening lines of Luke’s version of the Christmas Story, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Joseph and Mary made a difficult and ill-timed (at least in some ways) journey, because the absolute and oppressive power of an occupying empire and its army compelled them to do so. Moreover, shortly after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary found themselves refugees fleeing to Egypt (this in Matthew’s Gospel) to escape the pogrom Herod had launched aimed at all Hebrew newborn boys. Their story is mirrored in that of contemporary refugees crossing danger zones and hoping to find a safe camp.

Then there’s the fact that Mary is pregnant without benefit of marriage. Initially Joseph planned to divorce her, which was what, according to cultural norms of the time, an upright man ought to have done. But Joseph decided, probably at risk of sanction and embarassment, to stand by the woman to whom he was engaged. Must have been hard for them both, in different ways. Who knows how their families reacted to it all.

What about the folks who show up at the manger to celebrate the birth? We wrap them in starlight and sentimentality. But shepherds were not rustic fellows well-met in that culture. They were more like neer-do-wells. They were poor. They were looked down upon by decent folks because their work schedule meant they couldn’t fulfill expected religious obligations. And the wise men or magi had also run afoul of Herod, having to travel home by a detour to avoid the threat of the crafty tyrant.

One could go on, but perhaps it is enough, finally, to remind ourselves that the child, who was a new and different sort of king, was born not in a palace or a well-appointed hospital birthing room, but in a shed or manger, because “there was no room for them at the inn.” They were homeless and lacked health care coverage. The inn, and in some sense the world, had little room or welcome for this child. It remains true for far too many children today.

So the story of Christmas itself isn’t all bright reds and dark greens. It’s blue to start with. It is a story of oppressive power, a flight from the threat of violence, a family that is pretty much alone and vulnerable.

We’re wrong if we tell ourselves that Christmas is only and always about fun, festivity, happiness, and merriment. It’s more complex than that.

There is evil and sadness in this story, as there is in life. But that’s not all there is. There is also an outline of grace, of love and meaning, not apart from these harder realities, but in the midst of them. In the midst of suffering and fear, grace — the story says — still comes. Love still takes a risk coming in unexpected ways and to unlikely people.

The colors of Christmas are many. The story isn’t just for the bright-colored times of life or for the happy or successful people. In fact, it may be most of all for those who know loss and heartache, but who yet manage to hope. For those who hope and love anyhow.

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