As darkness sets in earlier each day, people yearn for light. Not everyone finds it, particularly during the winter holidays.

The holiday season can bring on grief, depression, anxiety and dread. Anyone who has lost a loved one knows there will be an empty seat at the table. Anyone who had a difficult childhood cringes at the thought of seeing certain relatives. Anyone for whom gift-giving and entertaining will compound financial hardship worries about disappointing others and having even more bills to pay. Broken relationships, addictions and unrealistic expectations also weigh heavily when everyone else seems happy.

St. Andrew's Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi will offer a pre-emptive spiritual lift at 7 p.m. Sunday, before the holiday blues have a chance to descend. The program, called "Let Your Heart Be Light," will acknowledge people's suffering, offer comfort and send the message that the holidays can be lighter.

This will be the second time the 90-year-old congregation holds this service. Last year's service was more of a concert held in mid-December, when people already were struggling with their feelings about the holidays, said the Rev. Cindy Senarighi, congregational care pastor at the church. Tonight, she hopes to give people another way of approaching the season.

Senarighi understands the suffering of those who feel sad, afraid or overwhelmed during the holidays. Not only did she previously work as a psychiatric nurse at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, she also lost a younger sister at 46 to a fast-moving cancer. While planning last year's service, Senarighi decided she wanted it to be a place of hope and promise rather than tears.

"We're not going to preach at them to suck it up or pull yourself up by your bootstraps. We're going to acknowledge that for some people it can be hard at the holidays, but you don't have to stay there," she said. "I think there are ways we can thrive, even through some of the darkest moments."

Dr. Brendon Cullinan said reports of sadness and mood disorders increase during the holiday season. The executive medical director of HealthEast Care System's 14 clinics said questions about mood should be part of every clinic visit.

"It's helpful to get a clear picture of it," Cullinan said. "We start out by having the conversation about that and asking questions about how pervasive that is in the person's life."

Patients may be asked about sleep patterns, whether they are looking forward to upcoming events, weight fluctuations, concentration and suicidal thoughts.

Healthcare providers may test for thyroid disease or ask about seasonal affective disorder, both of which can cause depression. They may also discuss whether counseling or medication would help, Cullinan said.

"It's a really important part of taking care of people to make sure that we have time and that we address these concerns," he said.

On the spiritual side, St. Andrew's will begin this evening's event with coffee, tea and treats so people can talk. In addition to group prayer, scripture, a guest speaker and music, the prayer ministry team will be available in the sanctuary to listen to individuals and pray with them. The church's "Animal Angels" will offer what Senarighi calls a "dog ministry" by visiting with congregants.

"We just unpack it, that wherever you can find the unconditional love of God, you find it," she said.

Sara Renner, contemporary worship director at the 8,000-member congregation, will perform with her jazz and gospel band, The Elements. The music will be reflective but also uplifting, Renner said.

Mark Odland, a licensed marriage and family therapist and member of St. Andrew's, is a former Lutheran pastor who also knows how people can struggle through the holidays.

"Sometimes if we're overwhelmed we can have a trigger. It can be a person, it can be a place or a situation, and it can stir up some feelings," Odland said. "It can be unpleasant emotions and insecurities. They feel like that little kid who's never good enough. Their head might know it's untrue, but at an emotional level, there's something welling up inside."

Odland stresses the importance of taking care of oneself during the holidays.

"I tell people to be a detective of their own thoughts and feelings. Stand outside yourself and say, 'What am I feeling or what am I thinking and is it actually true?' " Odland said. "If it's not true, then maybe it's not worth putting your energy into."

He advises people in sticky family situations to plan a temporary escape by going for a walk or playing with the kids at holiday gatherings. And he believes tonight's service can help set that stage.

"This service is great because it allows them to just be, to feel what they're feeling, and be surrounded by loving and supportive people," he said.

Nancy Crotti is a Twin Cities freelance writer.