For Maija Cruz, Christmas always involved boxes of ornaments, garlands, nativity scenes and lights hauled out of storage and into her mom's living room the Friday after Thanksgiving.
"She pulled out all the stops," Cruz, 33, said of her single mom, Sheila, who loved to remind her which ornaments came from which family member.
But those traditions fell apart as Cruz, who was raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, settled in the Midpeninsula after graduating from Stanford University, starting a new job and marrying her husband in 2015. Sheila witnessed her only child start a new life without her, over 2,000 miles away, and that created a rift between her and her daughter.
"We became somewhat estranged, and it really changed the holiday experience for me because Christmas was this binding time," Cruz said.
For the first time, in 2013, Cruz didn't go back to Milwaukee to be surrounded by family and the comfort of their traditions. Things were different and Cruz felt isolated during the normally spirited holidays. Then she found an event called Blue Christmas.
Also known as the Longest Night or Longest Sleep, Blue Christmas is a church service for people like Cruz who can't feign the joy that's expected every year for the holidays, whether it's due to familial discord, loss of a family member, divorce, illness, unemployment or even a national or global issue that may be causing personal anxiety.
And this year, University Lutheran Church, Palo Alto Vineyard Church and Highway Palo Alto Community in Christ are offering their own space in which to quietly reflect, grieve or mourn during the holidays.
"(Blue Christmas) creates space to embrace what's important about Christmas, but you don't have to be all happy and joyful about it," said Susan Van Riesen, lead pastor of Vineyard Church. "It gives you the freedom to really be authentically where you're at in your life while acknowledging the holidays."
After attending University Lutheran's service last year, Van Riesen was inspired to host a similar event through Vineyard Church for the first time at Mitchell Park Community Center. The purpose is similar, but each church will have its own interpretation of Blue Christmas and method of creating a space for reflection and remembrance.
At University Lutheran Church, inside a dimly lit sanctuary with candles and blue lights, stations with different activities — such as origami, drawing, writing or poetry reading — will be set up for people to freely visit. Time will also be reserved for singing what Rev. Gregory Schaeffer, pastor of University Lutheran, calls "paperless songs" — music that is easy for people to follow along with and won't require them to know the lyrics.
"It's not like a Christmas Eve service where everything is bright and gold," Schaeffer said. "It's a little more sheltering or enveloping."
For Vineyard Church, hosting at Mitchell Park Community Center will not only provide people on the other side of town another option for a Blue Christmas service but also a more familiar space that's not a church. Van Riesen also said their service will invite people to be prayed for by members of Vineyard Church's prayer ministry.
In addition, to make the space more comfortable and open to everyone, the church won't be asking visitors to attend their ministry in the future, which is customary for typical services.
"Even though our church is putting it on, I want it to be not necessarily about our church or for our church," Van Riesen said. "This, more than anything else we do, is very much for the community."
Vineyard Church and University Lutheran Church will give people the option to share what they're grieving about or whatever is on their minds during the service in order to provide a more cathartic experience.
At Highway church, people will have the option to speak with others or a pastor after the hour-long service.
Cruz has attended University Lutheran's service for the past six years, slowly allowing herself to create and accept new holiday traditions: catching a screening of Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" at the Stanford Theatre, setting up a small birch tree inside her Mountain View home that reminds her of "A Charlie Brown Christmas," and attending Blue Christmas.
"I have new traditions now. I have new habits each year, and now Blue Christmas is just on my calendar," she said. "Even though I'm in a better place now, it's still nice to take a moment to give yourself permission to still mourn the loss of what used to be."
IF YOU'RE GOING
• Palo Alto Vineyard Church will host Blue Christmas on Dec. 18, 7 p.m. in the El Palo Alto Room of Mitchell Park Community Center, 3700 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
• Highway Palo Alto Community in Christ will hold The Longest Night on Dec. 18, 7 p.m. at High Way Palo Alto Community in Christ, 3373 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
• University Lutheran Church will host Blue Christmas on Dec. 20, 7 p.m. at University Lutheran Church, 1611 Stanford Ave., Palo Alto.