The sprightly trappings of Christmas were there, as they are in any church sanctuary this time of year: lights twinkling from trees, festive red bows on pine garlands, colorful banners giving voice to the season's joyful message.
But on this night, the tone was decidedly different: subdued lights casting deep shadows, "Silent Night" played with muted deliberation, parishioners reaching for one another in the pews, some dabbing at tears.
And that was OK.
In what is becoming an important, and widespread tradition, King of Kings Lutheran Church in Woodbury was holding its annual "Blue Christmas" service, aimed at people for whom the holiday's tidings of joy are elusive.
"This is our third year of doing this," said the Rev. Liz Eide, congregational life pastor at the church. "It was started by our prayer ministry team that has recognized that, for some folks, this is a painful time of year."
While a new tradition at King of Kings, Eide said some churches have been holding the services for at least a decade. Eide sees demand for that ministry increase markedly around the holidays. Offering the "Blue Christmas" service is another way to respond to those in crisis.
Having the rest of the world bustling about and being merry and bright, with an emphasis on family and holiday traditions, can amplify that pain of loss and struggle, she said. Those grieving the death of loved ones (even from years ago), a lost job, divorce, friends or family who have moved away, or even the gloom of long nights -- "the pain hangs with them," she said.
In a community of shared purpose, the service acknowledges that hard edge of this happy season, but also asserts the message of hope it holds, Eide said. The King of Kings service included a lighting of four symbolic candles and concluded with parishioners writing their concerns -- words such as "Grandpa Jim" and "work" -- on white paper stars, which were hung on a tree in front of the church.
The service was a new experience for Sue Oberg, who lost her best friend to brain cancer just before Thanksgiving, but it was a measure of comfort. "Seeing other people going through similar things that you are -- you realize you're not the only one feeling sorry for yourself," she said with a wistful smile.
Still, while adjusting to a new emptiness in her life, all those holiday songs on the radio and cheery Christmas cards offer a stark contrast to what she has been feeling.
"This is supposed to be such a happy time of year -- I get it, I understand that," she said.
The service also hit home for Don Farrell, leader of the church's prayer ministry team, whose mother-in-law died two months ago.
"This time of year is just terrible for some people," he said. "But this reminds us of our faith in Christ, and how we need to help each other in our journey."
Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @StribJAnderson