Filtering through cloud cover and thick windows, the sunlight cast a blue quality over the walls of the Cloverdale United Church. Using a long-necked barbecue lighter, Reverend Lori Megley-Best illuminated the small table in the chancel with innumerable tealights.
It was staged: Megley-Best was lighting the candles for a few photographs. But in the empty and quiet room, it felt solemn, thoughtful. Something perhaps akin to what the church’s Longest Night of the Year service would feel like.
The service, to be held on Dec. 21 at 6:30 p.m. this year, is a chance for people to remember that Christmas isn’t always happy.
“It’s an opportunity to name, or at least voice, that Christmas isn’t always an easy time,” Megley-Best said. “And that it’s okay not to be super happy, not to be super up, not to be super excited about Christmas.”
Sometimes called Blue Christmas, the Longest Night of the Year service has been a part of the United Church holiday season for a number years. Megley-Best has been doing the service at the Cloverdale United Church for the last five years, and has held similar services at other churches before.
The Cloverdale United Church calls it the Longest Night of the Year service because it “refers to a time when the darkness is largest,” Megley-Best said. It’s often held around the winter solstice, when the daylight hours are the shortest they’ll be all year.
The service is usually small: only about 20 people, compared to the church’s usual 70. It’s normally people from Megley-Best’s congregation, and perhaps a few of their friends who are experiencing difficulties during the holiday season. Although there have been some people from the larger community join the service, that is rare.
“Sometimes to come to that kind of a service, it’s particularly difficult anyway,” she said. “So people do really need to have some support to come to it, particuarly if they’ve never been here before.”
“People are particularly vulnerable,” she added, explaining why the service might be difficult. “And I think they’re more vulnerable at a time when everybody else seems not to be that way.”
When Megley-Best prepares for the service, she keeps those difficulties in mind.
“I think about the people that probably would come to this one in particular, for this year,” she said.
“I think about those people and I think about … what they might or want to hear, or want to experience, in the midst of all the other frivolity before Christmas.”
Generally, the service is short, Megley-Best said, including quiet music and special readings. A few Christmas carols may be sung, but they will be the more reserved selections. There will be a time for silent reflection, prayer and the lighting of the candles to symbolize “some of the difficulties people might be bringing that evening,” Megley-Best said.
In a previous year at another church, Megley-Best remembers one parishioner who came to the Longest Night of the Year Service. She had suffered a miscarriage after a number of earlier miscarriages, and came in looking “distraught,” Megley-Best said.
But, “whatever happened for her during the service, she left [seeming] much more at peace,” she said.
“When people show up, and I show up to preside, that’s God’s work touching the people that come to the service.”
For Megley-Best, that’s an important part of the Longest Night of the Year service, and something that continues to remind her of her faith-based reason to celebrate Christmas.
“For me, being a Christian, we’re celebrating the fact that God came into the world to be with us and to console us and to comfort us, and to know us better,” she said.
“And so being at that service, and seeing that happen for people in the moment, it’s a reminder for me what the true meaning of Christmas [is].”