The holiday season is a time of year typically filled with much joy and light — unless you are someone sitting in a dark place.
While many are gearing up for a fun celebration with their family and friends, there are innumerable people within the community who are dealing with grief, depression, anxiety, resentment and other emotions leaving them — quite simply — feeling broken.
“There are so many things that make us feel at this time of year this kind of false jolliness, as the world romanticizes the holidays,” said Pastor Lisa Vick, the pastor of Owatonna United Methodist Church. “In reality, there are a lot of us who have felt deep loss, and as a pastor, we know that grief. And not just the loss of life, but the loss of jobs or of love and other things.”
Because of the heaviness that can be felt by so many over the holiday season, the UMC is one of a handful of area churches providing a “Blue Christmas” service this week. Falling this year on Dec. 21, the first day of winter, and therefore the longest “night” of the year, Pastor Amanda Floy of Trinity Lutheran Church in Owatonna said Blue Christmas services are sometimes referred to as “the service of the longest night.”
“It’s the longest night of the year, where the world feels dark and we look forward to the light of the world coming,” Floy said. “[Blue Christmas] is a place where you can come bring all your emotions and hear words of hope, healing and promise.”
Both women of the cloth said they have personally felt times in their life where their hurt and pain have left them longing for a space to feel those less than desirable emotions. In fact, Vick said after the death of her parents the traditional Blue Christmas service she was accustomed to suddenly had more profound meaning and understanding for her.
“It spoke to me more,” Vick said. “It’s interesting, but it is one service that a lot of people really look forward to. It’s a time they can sit and be themselves and not put on a false smile.”
In reality, a lot of us have felt deep loss,” she continued. “I feel that’s where God is, so this is a service that I think is one of the most meaningful because it speaks to who God is and who Christ is with us and in our loss.”
Floy said providing space for people to feel their emotions — including their negative ones — is not just important, but crucial in order to keep going day after day.
“I would like for our world to be more sensitive to people who are hurting, but we’re all in a real strong rude and within the hustle and bustle of trying to make ends meet, trying to have Christmas be what we think it should be, trying to get our job done or just trying to be whoever you think you’re supposed to be to function in life,” Floy said. “There isn’t a lot of space to feel, and we end up pushing down a lot of our emotions and not acknowledging them and not acknowledging the fact that we’re hurting.”
When people don’t acknowledge their emotional pain, Floy said that often leads to those feelings festering and inhibiting people from processing their hurts and their griefs. And grief doesn’t have to be from a place of loss, but often can look like financial struggles or even difficulty coping with the “state of the world.”
“We need to have that space,” she said. “It’s cathartic and gives a sense of relief and release, a sense of safety and a sense of just not being alone.”
Not being alone is the key purpose for the Blue Christmas services at the two churches, and both clerics said that, regardless of someone’s religious feelings or status, they are welcome to attend.
“It is one of those services that is really open to all, even those who maybe don’t feel welcome in other times,” Vick said. “This is a time where it doesn’t matter where you are, you can sit in here.”
“People want to be in a space where they’re not expected to be holly and jolly and where they don’t have to put on airs like everything is OK,” Floy added. “We want to give them a space where they can come and recognize whatever their heart needs and be who they are on that day.”
Both services will have scripture read and provide some hymns, but Vick and Floy described the two spaces as being calm and meditative. And while the sanctuaries may be flooded with blue, Floy said not to be confused at what that color means.
“We commonly think of blueness and sadness, but blue is the traditional color of advent,” she said. “Blue is the color of hope.”
The Owatonna Middle School welcomed a new World Language and Spanish teacher at the beginning of this year.
Logan Schock said he’s always had an affinity for other languages, and after completing his degree at Minnesota State University, Mankato, he knew he wanted to be a Spanish teacher to encourage conversations about being multilingual and increasing cultural awareness in students.
“I saw an opening for a World Language and Spanish teacher in the summer,” Schock said. “The job description piqued my interest. Part of the job is teaching world languages and introducing students to languages and their respective cultures. The main reason I came to Owatonna Middle School was being able to teach multiple languages.”
Currently he teaches Spanish, American Sign Language and newly introduced Japanese.
“There are two main reasons I brought Japanese into the world language classroom, the first being that Japanese is a language I have always been intrinsically drawn toward,” he said. “I also believe that Asian languages are not represented much in southern Minnesota, and thought it would be an enriching experience for middle schoolers.”
According to Lead with Languages, an organization dedicated to raising awareness of the importance and benefits of language, learning a second or third language is beneficial at any age. For middle and high school students, those who invest in learning a new language benefit themselves in multiple ways.
If students choose to pursue higher education or enter the workforce upon graduation, having skills in multiple languages helps them stand out. Learning another language is an accomplishment in and of itself, so having those skills helps improve self-confidence and a sense of personal achievement in students.
Several studies have shown that for bilingual people, whether they learned their second language at a young age or as an adult, those skills help people be better problem solvers as well as improved memory and concentration. With younger students, the studies show they tend to score better on standardized testing.
Schock said he believes that introducing students to world languages helps them see things through a new perspective. He said there are many grammatical concepts in the languages he teaches that are different from English.
“There are many grammatical concepts in ASL that change the meaning of a certain sign. Facial expression, speed, and hand shape can completely change the meaning of a sign,” he said. “This is a great way to teach students the importance of body gestures and facial expressions. Students can then take this knowledge and apply it to their first language.”
Similarly for Spanish, students quickly realize that many of the words and sounds are similar in English. He said having students apply concepts they already know to a new language is rewarding for him to see. Some of those concepts, such as making nouns masculine and feminine can apply to other languages, so if students pursue a language like French, some of those concepts are already in their tool kits and they can apply that knowledge elsewhere.
“In Japanese, the approach is to introduce students to a writing system that uses characters instead of an alphabet,” he said. “Having students engage in reading, writing, listening, and speaking in a language that is so distinct is a great challenge. When students finally communicate in Japanese, I believe that they take pride in it.”
Dr, Tom Meagher, district STEM coordinator, said he was thrilled when he learned that Schock was planning to bring the Japanese language into his classroom. Meagher, who isn’t fluent in Japanese, but can hold a decent conversation in the language said he has students participate in a STEM Cafe each year to share research ideas with students in Japan.
“What we are working to do is try and help Owatonna schools be part of this international, world class state to show off what we do in the classrooms,” Meagher said. “I think it will be cool if some students can come into these Cafe’s speaking some of the languages as other students. We don’t get a lot of foreign language opportunities until middle school, some districts don’t get opportunities until high school so I think this introduction to many languages is great.”
Schock said languages have always been something he has easily been able to grasp. He compares learning a new language to cooking.
“An example of this could be learning about ingredients if you are into cooking, learning the terminology of a sport, or studying areas of history,” he said. “ Language learning becomes more engaging this way, in turn making you more motivated to continue and power through the harder to grasp concepts.”
With this in mind, Schock said one of his favorite things about being a teacher is the moment for students when everything “clicks” or when his students come up to him and greet him in a language he has helped them learn.