Of all the holidays, Christmas can be the most difficult holiday for many to negotiate with all the expectations. Added to that equation is that Christmas will be different this year for many due to the pandemic. For those who have lost a family member or loved one, celebrating a holiday that is usually spent with loved ones is challenging, at best. Christmas is often only time of year that many see their loved ones, some won’t see their loved ones in person at all this year due to COVID restrictions.
While this is not the first year Emmanuel Lutheran Church – Lincolnton has held a Blue Christmas service, Pastor Michael Collins felt like it was needed this year. The service, which is available on the church’s YouTube channel was done on Monday, the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year.
“We long for light and hope,” he said. “We long for a sense of community and we can’t be that for each other now. We can decorate our houses and put-up trees and lights, but so many people have lost family members, or their family members are ill and can’t visit them. Blue Christmas is a service that helps recognize that not everyone is celebrating or feeling joyful. It acknowledges the pain that people are experiencing in their lives right now, especially in this time of COVID when nothing seems normal.”
Most of the usual holiday-related events were cancelled this year. Except for a grassroots-organized Christmas cruise-in in downtown Lincolnton, all city-organized holiday events were cancelled as was the Cat Square and Denver Christmas parades. The regular city Santa wasn’t in his house for children to visit. To make matters even more grim, Jim Helms, who was a member of Collins’ congregation, passed away from complications due to COVID in November.
“All of the things that bring us the joy of that Normal Rockwell Christmas have been stripped away,” he said. “This is heavy, it’s hard and painful. These days, it’s easy to tap into everyone’s pain.”
Normally, Collins travels to Washington state and Colorado to see his children and grandchildren.
“It’ll end up that I won’t have see my grandchildren for over a year,” he said. “That hurts. Thank God, literally, for Facetime and other ways of communicating, but that’s not the same as being able to touch and hold someone. Even here with close family, they can get together, but they have to refrain from touching. Maintaining six feet distance and wearing masks sets us apart and isolates. The old expression is that no one is an island and yet we’re all living as islands and small family groups that can’t get together for fear of this virus. That’s heavy.”
The Blue Christmas Service that Collins gave acknowledges just how painful and heavy our world has become and to offer hope and light and a sense of Emanuel.
“I’ve always said that within the life of the church, Christmas has the most emotional baggage tied to it,” Collins said. “I don’t mean that in a negative way, but there’s so much emotionally riding on this holiday. It can’t be to people what it’s supposed to be – joyous celebrations, food and being gathered.”
Rev. Tony Matthews, who had been the pastor at United Methodist Church in Lincolnton for the past three years, transferred to Crouse United Methodist Church and Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church in July. He and his family will be going through their first Christmas without Matthews’ beloved wife, Tanya who passed away on June 5.
In an effort to deal with the holidays without his wife, who was his childhood sweetheart, Matthews is spending time with his core group of people, which includes his daughter, doing things that Tonya would normally be doing around this time of year – baking, making fudge, Chex Mix and watching Tonya’s favorite Christmas movies.
Isolation is a problem in normal times, especially around the holidays. This year, isolation may be exacerbated because of COVID. Think of the people who are living in nursing homes and assisted living centers. Many of them been shut down to visitors since March. Visitors to hospitals are also limited or not allowed due to COVID.
“There’s a difference between being isolated and being separated,” Matthews said. “Isolation breaks us down – there’s ways to connect so we don’t feel so isolated.”
Technology has been a blessing in these times. In the past, churches, like Emmanuel and Matthews’ two churches in Crouse, didn’t have to rely much on livestreaming services, but that’s all changed. They’ve had to reinvent themselves. Because of that, however, they’ve expanded their reach. People who have never been able to attend services were able to via the Internet. There is some silver lining to a pandemic.
Because of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and other medical professionals have recommended that we wear face coverings, but in reality, masks are nothing new.
“We wear masks to hide our pain and how we’re really doing,” Matthews said. “These medical masks are nothing compared to the fronts we usually give to people. Those are really the masks that separate us – not being inconvenienced by wearing a mask to stop COVID but wearing a mask to hide our pain and our loneliness. We can’t deal with what we’re experiencing until we drop that mask.”
The negativity that’s arisen due to wearing a mask to slow the spread of COVID, government shutdowns and COVID in general has run rampant in particular on social media.
“I think we need to be intentional about not spreading the negativity that we hear and see,” Matthews said. “Whether it’s on social media or in our personal relationships. Sometimes we need to just back off and realize that people don’t need a steady diet of your opinion. Your opinion is not what heals the world – your love and service is. People are freely sharing hurtful things. They’re dropping their guard on civility.”
Matthews referred to a quote that says that difficult times don’t build character but reveal it and said that we’re seeing the ugly truth of that.
“We have to be intentional about our growth, suffering and hurting,” he said. We usually put so many expectations on Christmas that we can’t possibly fulfill. As it is, we put unrealistic pressures on the perfect gift, the perfect meal, the perfect family get together and we’re usually let down in some way because we focus on the one thing that could be better. We automatically put too much stress on the celebration of Christmas. We set ourselves up for failure during the best of times. Now we actually have the opportunity to remember what is important. In years past people would say that we have to slow down and get back to what the true meaning of Christmas. By golly, isn’t this a good year to do that?”
Despite the cries of taking Christmas away when events were canceled, Christmas is still coming on Friday. How it’s celebrated is in the hands of each individual, as it always should have been, but expectations may have gotten in the way in the past. It could be that this year may be the year to make new rituals.
“The real message of Christmas is needed so much now,” Matthews said. “Not the trappings, the lights, gifts and huge wasteful meals. The message of Christmas is so powerful now.”
The current pastor of United Methodist Church in Lincolnton, Dr. Tim Roberts, is in essentially the same position as Matthews in that he hasn’t met all of his members in person. Their services are being held virtually.
“It’s difficult, it goes against everything within me to not go out and try to meet folks,” he said. “My family is struggling about what to do about getting together for Christmas. It doesn’t seem natural, but at the same time, we don’t want to be part of the problem. I think we’re choosing not to gather so we can all be together next year.”
In thinking about it theologically, Robert said that it’s brought him to the realization that sometimes we put too much emphasis on the things that we’ve made Christmas be.
“Maybe we can use this pandemic to re-orient ourselves because was we look back to scripture, the people who were the first to witness the birth – let’s go with the shepherds,” he said. “They weren’t looking for anything, they had no concept of Christmas. All they knew was that God had promised a messiah, but that was 700 years before. They may have been waiting, but they weren’t looking for it every day. They just happened upon this. For them, they witnessed the beginning of something new. They were witnessing the incarnation of God’s hope that future will be better than the present. They didn’t realize that at first, they just knew something miraculous had happened.”
In a way, Roberts added, we could see that as well – if we took the time to look beyond our woes and all of our losses towards what we do have – we do still have hope that tomorrow will be better than today.
“That’s what God has promised us,” he said. “Instead of lamenting that ‘we’re not getting together,’ spend some time thanking God for what God’s done. We live in a world that is very impatient – we get upset right now if Amazon Prime doesn’t come in two days, but hope comes. That’s the promise. We need to relearn what patience means.”
Perhaps new memories could be made this year in Lincoln County along the lines of something that two neighboring congregations - join Mount Olivet Lutheran Church and Bethlehem Lutheran Church Twin Cities have spearheaded on the Internet. Other congregations across the country have joined in. Beginning at 6:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, the congregations are asking people to step outside on your front step, light a candle and get ready to sing Christmas Carols. Invite your neighbors. They ask people to open their hearts and know that God is with us.