CALGARY - On one of the longest nights of the year, the imposing wooden doors of a more than century-old downtown Calgary church will open to anyone seeking refuge from the merry and bright pre-Christmas blare.
The Blue Christmas service at Knox United Church is for people who don't see the holidays as the most wonderful time of the year, perhaps because they've lost a loved one, a job, or a relationship.
"It just seems like a good time to acknowledge the struggle people are facing this time of year," says Rev. Greg Glatz.
"There seems to be a lot of power, a lot of hope and a lot of healing that takes place when people get together and see other people like them who are struggling."
Glatz started the Blue Christmas tradition at his old church in Winnipeg when his mother was grieving deaths in the family and a divorce.
"Christmas just got harder and harder every year," says Glatz. "And as I talked to people, I noticed my mom wasn't alone."
Knox has been holding the service since Glatz moved to Calgary about four years ago. Other cities in North America hold similar services.
Knox's Blue Christmas is usually held on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. But this year, the service is being held a day earlier, on Friday, because the sanctuary was already booked for a children's choir concert on Saturday.
The church's online event calendar advertises Blue Christmas simply as a "sacred space for people living through dark times."
Music is a defining feature. Songs are in a minor key and about finding light in the darkness.
Worshippers also hear lessons about "that sense of being in that in-between space, where things are not quite right but you hope they will be some day," says Glatz.
"Our prayers also reflect the sense of loss or sadness that people are feeling."
The 800-seat neo-Gothic sandstone church is normally full on Christmas Eve and a typical Sunday attracts about 100. In the past, about 30 to 50 have tended to show up for Blue Christmas, says Glatz.
Cathy Keough with the Calgary Counselling Centre says the holidays can make existing struggles more intense.
"Loneliness is a huge issue, regardless of the time of year," she says. "But it can feel a lot lonelier when everything around you is screaming 'connection.'"
Keough says the centre is about 14 per cent busier year over year and the city's ailing economy has been a big theme. Companies tend to lay off staff around year-end and this holiday season has been particularly tough, with hundreds of layoffs in recent months.
Many people strive for perfection around the holidays and compare themselves with others, while often stretching their budgets, Keough adds.
"People are rundown. They're sick. They're not even present for the big day," says Keough. "And then there's a letdown right after."
Depression and anxiety worsen when a person is isolated, which is why an event like Blue Christmas can help, says Keough.
"We're social beings and we heal socially and that healing can take place in the smallest doses."
Glatz says anyone hesitating about coming to Blue Christmas need not worry about being the right type of person, dressing the right way or having the right beliefs.
"I don't want people to be worried that they don't somehow qualify," he says.
"If you're feeling you need this service, just show up."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 19, 2019.