Believe it or not, Advent, and therefore Christmas, are right around the corner. I’ve already introduced this exciting liturgical season to my students, and I’ve begun to make preparations in my own life. I’ve located my Advent wreath, programmed my Christmas radio station, and made room for the mini Christmas tree and crèche that will be set up in my bedroom this weekend. I take this time of year very seriously. Christmas is hands-down my favorite holiday, from a religious and secular standpoint. I just love everything about this time of year- the spirit, the snow, the lights, the joy and laughter that fill the air. I love the anticipation of Advent, as we eagerly await the coming of our Lord. I love purchasing gifts, especially when I think of the perfect present for a family member that typically stumps me. I love singing Christmas carols, whether I am in church, on the street, or in a hospital. I love waking up on Christmas morning and quietly tiptoeing upstairs where my siblings and I patiently wait for our parents to wake up just like we did when we were children (except back then we weren’t so patient). I love seeing the smiles of surprised and happy friends and family members when they open their gifts. The Christmas spirit changes people- despite the freezing cold temperatures that generally accompany it, people’s hearts are melted just like the snow that coats our boots. No matter how cold it might be outside, I can’t help but feel warm on the inside from the moment that I see the first Christmas tree or lights (unless it’s still October). For me, Christmas has always been and will always be the best time of year, and I have made it my mission to make other people see that too. And that includes my students.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the religious education program at my parish has gone to great lengths to make sure that our students are satisfied on an intellectual, emotional, and moral level. The Christian message is not only meant for the mind, but must be applied to the entire person. Religious education programs should be modeled around the very human need to know, love, and serve God. I have been very blessed so far that the families of our parish have supported this vision. Not only do they bring their children to religious education classes once a week, but they also send them with bags of donated goods and even gift cards. I have been astounded at the generosity of the families of our parish. When we ask for lightly used clothing, we receive enough brand-new outfits to clothe entire families several times over. When we ask for a gift card for a turkey, we receive ten, plus a laundry basket full of stuffing, potatoes, canned vegetables, desserts, and anything else you might put on your Thanksgiving or Christmas table. Though I have come to expect this incredible generosity from our parishioners, I continue to be awed by their selflessness. They have not ceased to amaze me, and they have exceeded my expectations countless times.
One such incident occurred last week. It has become a tradition that the religious education office organizes a family service project for Advent. Rather than asking parents to take tags off the giving tree, we actually invite the families to take part in a Christmas service activity where the children have the opportunity to choose a child (generally of their own gender and age), buy a gift for them, and wrap it themselves. These gifts are then delivered to the needy children, to be given out at Christmas. I love this activity for a whole slew of reasons. Most obviously, it was Christmas-related and involved buying gifts for people. It was the perfect way to get myself and these families into the Christmas spirit. And most importantly, it is always viewed as an important activity for the children. Every year my siblings and I chose a tag off the giving tree at our parish, but in the end, our mother was the one who picked out the gifts, wrapped them, and left them under the tree. In fact, even though we were allowed to choose the tags ourselves, it was rare that we were able to choose a child our own age. The Christmas service project that I organized was different. Children were encouraged to choose other children that were about their age, and then they immediately had the opportunity to buy a gift or two for them. They were then able to wrap these gifts and handed them over to me to be delivered (as well as being a director of religious education, I also serve as Santa’s helper).
My students were really able to own this service project, and it was something that they were able to do themselves (with a little help from Mom, especially when it came time to wrap). Many of the children picked gifts that they would have liked, even though they knew that these toys were not for them. After they had wrapped their gifts, they handed them over to me, Santa’s helper, to deliver to the children, and the pride and joy in their eyes was as clear as day. This was something that they had done all by themselves, for children just like themselves, and they were happy to have had the chance to do something special for these children. I can honestly say that there has not been a moment that I have loved my job more than those two days of Advent service projects, and there was not a moment where I was more proud of my students. Don’t get me wrong- there have been countless times where I have thought to myself “I love my job” and have marveled at the gift that my students have been to me. But there is something special about sharing this experience with my little Advent angels. Maybe it’s the fascination as my students intently listen to the Nativity story, or the joyful anticipation as they choose their tags, or the pride and happiness as they wrap their gifts and give them to me, but whatever it is, I cannot think of a better way to bring in the Advent/Christmas season. Though it’s not quite Thanksgiving and Advent is still a few days away, the season has already begun for me. It began the moment that my first little angel walked into the room and excitedly chose his tag, and it won’t end until long after the radio stations have stopped playing Christmas music. This is a time of hope, and seeing my students so selflessly helping the less fortunate has given me hope. I pray you will find hope in this season of Advent as well.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!