Families decorate their homes. Friends gather for parties. As the classic carol proclaims — “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
But that is simply not true for everyone. For many, circumstances create a mixed bag of anxiety, loneliness and depression. The guilt accompanying these emotions can compound those feelings.
It is not an uncommon occurrence and it can happen to anyone. In fact, it was even touched on in, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
And like Lucy in the cartoon special, the Rev. Bonnie Lanyi is often tasked with offering guidance through the trying times. However, Lanyi, unlike Lucy, is a bit more sympathetic (and she doesn’t charge 5 cents). The pastor of Lord of Life Lutheran Church understands that many people are facing darkness this time of year, both literal and figurative.
“There are a lot of reasons that people can feel down. For one, the days are getting shorter, that is until Dec. 21 when they start to get longer again. But there is just more darkness this time of year,” she said.
That, in and of itself, might not be too much. But when coupled with the expectation of merriment, it can prove a bit overwhelming.
“You hear ‘Merry Christmas,’ other people seem to be having lots of fun, you hear joyful holiday music everywhere you go ... but there are people who just are not feeling so happy or joyful,” Lanyi said.
Many times, the holidays serve as reminders of lost loved ones or broken relationships. It can be easy to slip into sadness when confronted by memories of happier times and Christmases past. In fact, that is something Lanyi has experienced personally.
“For those who are experiencing grief over a lost loved one, the memories come back this time of year. I lost my father this year and I was unpacking Christmas decorations ... there were things in there that he had given me that made me really miss him,” she said.
“So you could be grieving the loss of someone or even grieving the loss of a relationship ... just going through things that aren’t really great and seem to make it all harder.”
There is also the cultural expectation heaped upon individuals this time of year. Not only is one to be joyful, there are the demands of gift giving which can create financial hardships.
“Culture tells us that we have to have a certain kind of holiday with lots of gifts and maybe expensive gifts,” she said.
Lanyi wants to help people feeling lost and hopeless find a path to peace. She encourages those who are experiencing negative emotions to look toward faith and community. Both, she says, can prove to be a light in the darkness.
“We can feel like we are alone in the darkness ... but we’re not. We were created to have a relationship with God and each other. So one of the things I would suggest is getting out and connecting with other people,” she said. “People need face-to-face interaction, even in a world with a lot of great technology. We need to be able to really connect with people and create a real community.”
That can be a faith-based community or a more secular one. But reaching out to those who share common interests and understanding can help pull one out of a depressive episode.
“I would encourage people when they are struggling to reach out to someone who is caring, whether it is a friend or family member or someone in their faith community because, again, we are created to be together,” she said.
She also notes that turning one’s attention toward others can provide relief.
Giving of oneself, even when suffering feelings of sadness, she says, can provide a boost.
“Do something for someone else, especially people in need. That can certainly help,” she said.
For Layni, her faith provides an anchor. Her relationship with Christ and her parishioners has helped her traverse feelings of sadness. Tapping into that spiritual connection, she says, can provide a great deal of comfort.
“Jesus is present with us ... and we don’t have to pretend that we have everything together or that we’re happy and joyful. Each one of us has shortcomings and we make mistakes,” she said.
“But we have to own up to the mistakes. In fact, for Lutherans, we begin each worship service with a confession. It frees us up to hear God’s word of mercy and peace.”
To help those who are suffering, Lanyi and her congregation hold a worship program each year that focuses on hope.
The Longest Night service, slated for 7 p.m., Dec. 21 at the church, seeks to provide strength through community and peace through music.
“This year we have the director of our music ministry and also the organist from St. Mark’s playing the organ. The bell choir from St. William will be here ... which is pretty neat because it was actually St. William Catholic Church that built our sanctuary in 1928,” she said.
Lanyi notes that all are welcome to participate in the service, regardless of their religious affiliation.
She says their church, locally known as the “small church with the great heart,” welcomes all.
“We will name the difficulties and hard things that we are going through this time of the year. It will be a chance to sit and rest in a sacred space. We will have music and scriptural readings. There will also be a time to light candles, as a way of representing the light of Christ coming into the dark world,” she said.
“It’s is a beautiful service and it really works. All are welcome to come here to rest, as we spend this time of year waiting and preparing for the light of Christ. We wait with hope and joy for the source of eternal peace which is Jesus.”