BRATTLEBORO — Loudspeakers seemingly everywhere are shouting “All is Merry and Bright.” Except if you're grieving a death. Or divorce. Or job loss, health challenge, hunger, homelessness, or separation from a loved one.
“There's all sorts of sadness,” Devin Starlanyl says.
The member and lay minister at Brattleboro's St. Michael's Episcopal Church knows that seasonal tunes declaring “It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” don't comfort those feeling otherwise.
That's why she and her peers are organizing a “Longest Night” service for the public on Sunday, Dec. 22.
“There can be a lot of reasons to be down,” Starlanyl says. “The loss of a loved one, seasonal affective disorder, addictions, the news, the political climate, commercialism - families get together but they don't always get together. We need healing.”
The longest night
The sixth annual service, scheduled for the Sunday closest to the winter solstice - the shortest day of the year - is a nondenominational program of spiritual and secular readings and music.
“We have come here, the longest night, to name the loss and sorrow in our lives when the world around us celebrates joy and happiness,” its opening words state. “We have come here, the longest night, to acknowledge the darkness as we also claim the light that follows the night.”
The event annually draws between 40 and 50 people who, during a candle lighting ceremony, speak of everything from losing family members and friends to struggling with addition, depression and a myriad of physical and mental diagnoses.
“The holiday season can magnify what is going on in our lives, including pain and loss,” says Phillip Wilson, a retired priest who will lead the program. “Sadness and memories may seem overwhelming at a time when joy and celebration are expected. And when you have to hide it, it's the most difficult. This service meets people in the broken place. It allows them to name and own it and look for healing.”
Organizers have written most of the service themselves, including new words to the 1872 English carol “In the Bleak Midwinter.” But they'll also share a Jewish Hassidic story about Adam.
“How frightened he must have been when, for the first time, he saw the sun disappear,” it says in part. “How could he accept the night, when he had never seen a dawn?”
And they'll quote the late Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves,” Rilke wrote. “Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
The program starts at 4 p.m. at Brattleboro's St. Michael's Episcopal Church. Organizers stress they won't hold a collection, promote any particular religion, or have any expectations of those who attend.
“This is a different kind of service,” Starlanyl says. “It doesn't matter what you believe or don't believe - everybody's welcome. We want to provide a place of quiet, comfort, support, and validation that you're not alone.”
“It was a need we saw that we wanted to fill,” she says. “We were hoping it would become a tradition.”
Adds Wilson: “For so many people, this is the first holiday after 'fill-in-the-blank.' We're honoring the sacredness and vulnerability of the season, giving people a way to own their pain and, at the same time, to look toward the light and the possibility of hope and joy.”