BRATTLEBORO — An upcoming service is all about finding light and hope in darkness, says organizer Devin Starlanyl.
"It's the realization that this is the darkest time of the year but the light is coming," she said. "No matter what is going on in your life, it doesn't mean it's going to be forever."
The Longest Night Service starts at 4 p.m. on Sunday at St. Michael's Episcopal Church. The hour-long event features one song and several chants.
Attendees can light a candle to symbolize loss or grief. They can also share by speaking about what they are going through. There are no expectations around participation nor collections.
A lot of people, Starlanyl said, are marginalized by the holiday festivities.
"There's a lot of people if they hear one more carol, they're going to scream," she said. "This is a moment of quiet and reflection."
Last year, Starlanyl was inspired after seeing a New Hampshire church's advertisement for a service with the same name. She wanted to host one in Brattleboro for people in the area experiencing trouble going through the holidays.
This could apply to people who lost a job, are dealing with addiction or are suffering from chronic pain. But it's also for those who are lonely, sad, separated from a loved one or subscribe to a different religious idea.
"Everyone's supposed to be cheery. You just want to kick them sometimes," said Starlanyl, who suffers from chronic pain. "We mention God once in the service but we've rewritten the hymns. Jesus is never mentioned but his spirit is there."
Rev. Phillip Wilson "jumped on" the opportunity to host the event, Starlanyl said, while several of her friends also participated in the "powerful, low-key, no budget" service.
Wilson compares Christmas time to a magnify glass in which whatever is being felt takes on an intensity; feelings of joy or pain can become larger than before.
"We call it the Longest Night because it's around the solstice and after the longest night, the light becomes greater. It's honoring the broken place but honoring the hope of new light," said Wilson, who serves as an associate priest at St. Michael's after retiring. "There's music. There's silence. There's some readings but they're not preachy. It's inter-denominational, not particularly Christian."
Wilson hopes the service will continue annually on the Sunday before Christmas and grow into a community event. He recently visited a hospice to spread the word.
Last year, approximately 25 to 30 people attended.
"People come who really need to be there," Wilson said. "They're aware why they're there. You don't walk in thinking it's a Christmas service."
This time of year has proved difficult for Whitney Nichols, a participant leading the service. He is a member of St. Michael's and a friend of Starlanyl.
"I'm a person with a hidden disability," he said. "I have subsided housing support and there was a time when I was homeless and another time during the holidays when I was in an apartment without heat or water waiting to be evicted. So giving back what I've received is part of my recovery and healing."
Last year's service "deeply touched" Nichols.
"It was dark but we had hope," he said. "We were able to share and connect. That was very special."
Noting the importance of having people from other faith groups join the service, Nichols said the doors are open and everyone is welcome.
MJ Woodburn served as a greeter last year, giving tissues to attendees as needed and getting hugs along with expressions of gratitude as they left. She helps plan and run the local Recovery Sundays series, which is part of a national movement within the Episcopal Church where members of 12-step programs are asked to speak.
"I represent the recovering community," said Woodburn. "I know what it's like to have sober Christmases when it's become a drinking holiday for the rest of the world and a food holiday that can be difficult for those trying to have sanity around food."
While people maintaining sobriety may be happy and grateful, she said they might also carry around unresolved grief. She hopes more people from the recovery community make it to the service this year.
"We recognize people in and out of the faith community are having trouble with this holiday," said Woodburn.