ST. LOUIS (AP) — The crowd was small for a Christmastime church service, the atmosphere quiet and solemn. There were no joyous carols, no children dressed as nativity characters, no festive decorations.
About two dozen people gathered Monday night for a "Blue Christmas" service at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown St. Louis. It's among many nationwide providing a special service aimed directly at those in need of spiritual healing — whether due to divorce, tough economic times, the loss of a loved one or whatever has them feeling down at the holidays.
Charles Brown, 35, is still grieving the loss of his mother, who died in June of congestive heart failure. After Monday's service, Brown stuck around to be anointed with oil and for private words of healing from one of the pastors.
"He told me God is with me, God will bless me," Brown said. "I feel like this was a chance to lay my burden down. It gave me comfort."
The holiday services are often called "Blue Christmas" or "Longest Night," and typically held on or around the winter solstice, right before Christmas. The first Blue Christmas service was believed to have been performed in British Columbia in 1987.
Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources for the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., said the movement has picked up steam in recent years — perhaps due in part to the economic downturn.
"Part of it is a recognition that both the culture and even the church, at this time of year, can tend to completely overlook suffering," Burton-Edwards said. "Everybody is supposed to be cheery and happy and all of that, and yet that isn't the case for some people."
Christ Church Cathedral has offered Blue Christmas services for the past four holiday seasons. The church was lit mostly by candles. There was no sermon, instead it was a mix of scripture with healing words, quiet songs, prayers and the lighting of eight candles, each on behalf of particular struggles: Pain and illness, financial problems, broken families, addiction.
"I think it's definitely a time people think about family members and loved ones who have died, or they think of divisions or broken relationships," the Rev. Amy Chambers Cortright said. "Some people don't really feel like they have a place anywhere."
Blue Christmas services aren't tied to any particular denomination. In Jeffersonville, Ind., several churches come together each year. The Rev. Don Summerfield of First Presbyterian Church said the crowds there tend to be small, but the healing is clear.
"We had a guy drive 45 miles to the service," Summerfield said. "He just said he needed something like that."
The Rev. David Muench, an ordained Lutheran pastor and counselor in suburban St. Louis, said Blue Christmas services play an important role in showing people they are not alone in their suffering.
"We know that people can manage uncomfortable emotions when they are around other caring people," Muench said. "If it keeps me from feeling I'm not alone and there are others in this with me, it can be very valuable."
At Christ Church Cathedral, Cortright offered encouragement from Matthew 11:28, "Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest."