The “Service of the Longest Night”


For those who are suffering during the Christmas season due to loss, depression or illness, a non-traditional service can help

Rev. Dawn Anderson is the Associate Pastor of Care, Recovery and Small Groups at Lovers Lane UMC.

Dawn ANdersonOn Christmas Eve, churches around the world will be filled with brightly dressed, happy families singing "Joy to the World" with big smiles on their faces. And of course, that’s wonderful.

But what if you have just lost a dear loved one? What if you are going through a divorce, a serious illness or feeling alone or depressed? For people who do not feel like celebrating, trying to fake joy at a traditional Christmas service can make their situation feel even more painful and take energy they may not have. This is where the Service of the Longest Night can help.

Because we don’t know exactly when Jesus was born, early Christians set Christmas to be during the time of the Winter Solstice, the day of the year with the least daylight and the longest night. The alternative Christmas service, called the Service of the Longest Night, was born out of the idea that suffering people need a little extra light and hope at this time of year.

I organized my first Service of the Longest Night, which I called "Blue Christmas" then, as a layperson more than 20 years ago for people in my grief support group who told me they just could not force themselves to attend their usual Christmas services. I particularly remember one young woman who had lost a baby, her sister and her father all in the same year. She attended our Longest Night service that year and told me afterwards it helped her make it through the worst year of her life and brought her closer to God.

In fact, this service became such a meaningful part of her faith journey that she has followed me through the years, as I became a pastor offering this service at different churches. This dear young woman is not the only one who has felt this way; some have made the Longest Night service part of their holiday tradition, even after returning to their “regular” Christmas services.

Over two decades, I have refined the basic candlelight service I started with and now include communion. Each year I seem to think of a new “tweak” to try to make it better. I will give an overview here, and I am happy to share the script I have developed.

Altar with candlesOur service begins with Scripture readings of comfort and hope, including passages about light coming into the darkness. A candle ceremony follows with readers lighting different colored tapered candles representing grief, courage, memories, love, faith, hope and peace. As we light each candle, we read a short inspirational paragraph and a prayer related to the topic the color represents.

We invite congregants to come forward to the tiered candle rack on the altar, which, in our case, holds around 100 white votive candles. we encourage them to light candles in memory of loved ones they are missing. If they haven’t lost a person, we suggest lighting a candle as a reminder of the Light of the World.

Our Service of the Longest Night features gentle, yet uplifting, music from one singer and an acoustic guitar. Some of the music we have used includes hymns like "It Is Well with My Soul," modern music like "Held," or even secular music such as "Bridge Over Troubled Water." We intersperse short devotionals focused on subjects such as the simplicity of the original Christmas, the assurances of God’s Presence, eternal life and heavenly reunions.

At the end of the service, we invite people to take home the white candles that they lit earlier as physical reminders of their loved ones’ lives. Those who haven’t lost loved ones may take candles to represent the hope we have because of Christmas. Participants throughout the years have told me that burning these little white candles throughout their holiday meals and gatherings brings extra comfort and meaning to what can be difficult days.

The Service of the Longest Night provides a lifeline for people who are hurting by acknowledging that all of the emotions have a place at Christmas time. I have seen faith deepen in individuals who are suffering when they realize that Christmas is not just about joy.

By acknowledging our current pain and reaching for God’s future promises, we open ourselves to hope, and the day when we can once again sing "Joy to the World." But in the meantime, there is the Service of the Longest Night.

Published: Wednesday, October 25, 2023