In pairs or alone, people file into the dimmed sanctuary of Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in Altadena. This is no typical Christmas service. There is no sermon, no rendition of Joy to the World. The poinsettias are white, not red.
There's just soft candlelight and quiet prayers— what's called a "Blue Christmas" service. It's an alternative offered by a growing number of churches in the Los Angeles area and around the country, in recognition of how the holidays can be painful for people who may be going through a tough time in their lives.
Saint Mark’s was one of the first to embrace the idea when it held its first annual "Blue Christmas" service nine years ago. At its service Tuesday night, The Revs. Carri Patterson Grindon and Betsy Hooper-Rosebrook prayed one-on-one with attendees, foreheads touching, arms clasped around shoulders.
Zachary Abbott is one of several dozen people at this year's service. He said he's been struggling to come to terms with the fact that his elderly father, who has Parkinson's, is nearing the end of his life.
"I’m trying to be in the moment and celebrate each day that we have together, but it’s also a sad thing," Abbott said. "A service like this helps to acknowledge that that tension exists."
Attending the Blue Christmas service gave Abbott the "freedom to feel whatever you’re really feeling instead of having to put on the face you might have to put all day at work or at the store or even sometimes with loved ones," he said.
Hooper-Rosebrook, Saint Mark's assistant rector, said the service draws people from outside the regular Saint Mark's community who are looking for comfort and refuge.
"It could be that in your past someone has died at Christmastime or you had some family breakup," she said. "It could be that now you're estranged from members of your family and you see everyone else getting to celebrate this wonderful family time and you’re not getting to experience that."
Longtime church member Celinda Pearson first brought the idea of a Blue Christmas to Saint Mark's after her husband had died around Christmas.
"After he died, it just didn’t feel the same," Pearson says. "And I thought, there must be other people who feel like me."
Nine years later, the service has become a beloved tradition at Saint Mark's. Hooper-Rosebrook said staff now know to place tissue boxes by the entrance, adding that some attendees don't expect to become emotional.
"There's something about getting into church and that vulnerability that’s acceptable," Hooper-Rosebrook said. "The very same people are sitting with tears streaming down their face and they have a sense of freedom to let go and experience love."
Harry Hathaway, a retired lawyer, says church became more central in his life after he lost his wife of 56 years in October to esophageal cancer. He regularly goes to an Episcopal church in San Gabriel, but decided to attend Saint Mark's Blue Christmas service after hearing about it from the chaplain at his assisted living center in Altadena.
"This is new to me," Hathaway said. "I told the priest that my wife had died and I was a bit lost. And she prayed with me. To have the priest personally lay their hands on your and pray for you, it's wonderful. It's touching."