Totensonntag was a part of my childhood. The church of my childhood marked “Totensonntag” (toe-ten-zon-tahg) on the last Sunday of the church calendar year—the first Sunday of the church calendar year being the first Sunday of Advent—four Sundays before Christmas. So Totensonntag (directly translated from the German—“Dead Sunday”) was generally in late November.
Totensonntag was a chance for those in the church community to remember those who had died…funerals that had occurred in the last year were written down in the weekly bulletin, families who wanted to remember loved ones from years past would put a plant at the front of the church in memory, and we would sing a sad slow song in a minor key…I’m assuming it was about death, but I wouldn’t know for sure…the son was in German, a language I didn’t understand. It was a public formal way to remember those who were no longer among us, and a chance to officially acknowledge the ongoing grief of those in the congregation.
It’s been a long time since I attended a Totensonntag service…but I was speaking to someone who was going to be attending “The Longest Night” service at her church yesterday. December 21 is the winter solstice, making it the day when there is the most amount of darkness…a fitting time to acknowledge the darkness in our own lives. Other places have services called “Blue Christmas” or “Good Mourning” services—the holidays are a poignant time when we remember those who are departed and won’t be a part of the Christmas traditions in the way that was familiar and meaningful
It’s a struggle for many at this time of year, as one feels the pressure to be happy and cheerful, and enjoying the season. Grandma may not be around…and her special cookies and her tinkling laugh won’t be at the family gathering. A spouse isn’t present to wrap the gifts together in a made hilarious and late rush on Christmas Eve, or at the other end of the table to carve the turkey.
For many, there is mourning, though not over a death…children are alienated, and won’t come for Christmas; a spouse has been unfaithful, and while the events on the surface appear unchanged, there is terror hidden in his eyes, as he wonders if this is the last Christmas; mom scrambles to keep some of the traditions the same even though dad now lives in another house, and there isn’t enough time, money or help to do things the usual way.
The challenge for those who mourn a loss this season is to hold the complexities of life, to feel the tear of loss even as there is opportunities to embrace something new; to laugh at a child’s antics and allow that laugh to dissolve into tears with remembering; to be melancholy and still find a way to get to the party, even if one doesn’t stay as long; to thoroughly enjoy an evening without feeling guilty or disloyal to the loss; to find a way to negotiate through a painful family gathering, being thoughtful in one’s own conduct to protect oneself from the worst of the pain.
I was at a friend’s house last night, where a history buff showed me a video. It is hauntingly beautiful, as the mournful tone of the music, the incredible artistry creating beautiful images appear before our eyes, transforming moments of joy into brutal pain and then back into a peaceful scene, and back into times of horror. The story told is that of Ukraine during the World War II, some of it celebratory and victorious, much of it agonizingly painful. It seemed fitting that he showed it to me yesterday, the day of darkness…I was struck by the tears of the observers as the images touched their soul.