I live on the pending eclipse path, so How To Keep Your Kids From Going Blind is suddenly a topic around here.
First thing to know: The hazard of the eclipse is if you look at the sun. There aren’t deadly Eclipse Rays that come out and attack while you are napping in your hammock in the shade. The trouble, of course, is thats it’s really unusual to see the sun get all blocked up by the moon, and so people who would otherwise never stare at the sun might suddenly take an interest. Staring at the sun is always bad for you.
(Your pets, in contrast, probably aren’t going to take up astronomy as a hobby on Monday afternoon, unless I suppose that’s something you’ve caught them at before. My pets never stare at the sun. They mostly stare at the back door. And meat. If there’s a Meat Eclipse, my dog will be watching that one closely.)
So anyway, back to your kids.
#1 Practice Using Your Safety Glasses Ahead of Time
You got yourself NASA-approved glasses, of course, and you’ve read all about sun-viewing safety. Now practice. You do not want to be in the middle of a very short once-in-a-lifetime event and your kids are like “I can’t make mine work!” “I can’t see!” “These itch!” Practice.
#2 Not All Children Can Be Trusted to Wear Their Safety Glasses
If your child is not mature enough to be counted on, skip the viewing altogether. Just don’t go there. If your child is young enough to be oblivious you don’t even have to tell them there’s a viewing option. You can just let your young children know that the sun is going to be covered up by the moon, so it’s going to get dark outside in the middle of the day, which is nifty.
They’ll of course want to see it get dark (but they won’t want to go bed). So pick a room with a window that doesn’t face towards the sun during your eclipse time of day. Set the kids up so they can watch it get dark out that window. Stream the eclipse on your computer so that they can compare the progress of the eclipse with conditions outside.
Something fun if you are in striking distance of South Carolina (you don’t need to be in-diocese to participate): My friend Carol Pelster, who is a tremendous pleasure to work with, is organizing a SC Catholic Quiz Bowl to be held in Columbia, SC in early November. Her daughter Veronica writes:
My mom and I are happy to announce a date for the first annual Catholic Quiz Bowl of South Carolina! The date is Saturday, November 11 at 1 pm at Our Lady of the Hills.
What is a Catholic Quiz Bowl? This idea comes from our experience participating in the RC (Roman Catholic) Challenge in Oregon. This is a jeopardy style game for 5th through 12th graders with questions pertaining to the Catholic Faith, the Bible, the Saints, the Liturgy, etc. My siblings and I all thoroughly enjoyed this friendly competition and benefited immensely from this motivation to study our Faith. As a seminarian in Nebraska my brother started something similar there. Now, we are hoping to spread it to the South East!
What do we need to make this happen? What we need most is volunteers for the day of the game. Volunteers will ask the questions, keep score, time the games, and be door monitors. The more volunteers we have the smoother this will go. If you would like to volunteer please let my mom or me know. . . .
How does the game work? Players will be on teams of 3 to 4 players. Two teams will play against each other with the moderator asking the questions. There will be two types of questions: toss up, which anyone can answer, and bonus questions. For bonus questions the team members will be able to consult with each other to come up with the answer. Each round will be about 20 minutes. Multiple games will be going on at the same time (hence the need for many volunteers). Winners play off against each other until there is champion. More details and sample questions will be discussed at the planning meeting.
How does your child sign up to participate? My mom is working on a registration form [see below]. However, it is not too early to start talking to your friends and getting teams together. Each team will need a name and 3 to 4 players within the same age range (5th-8th grade or 9th-12th grade). This is not just for homeschoolers [parish groups, etc] –anyone in the appropriate age group is welcome. Also, don’t forget to study!
Please let me know if you are interested in helping or have questions.
A Facebook page and other web presence is in the works, and I’ll update this post when that time comes. Meanwhile, you can share this post with anyone you think would be interested. Remember that your team can be put together with whomever you like — it’s a good activity for youth groups, religious ed classes, or Catholic schools, but you can also just create your own mishmash team. If your parish or family or poker club wants to send multiple teams, that’s super.
How to Prep for the Quiz Bowl
For studying, kids should refer to a good catechism, Bible, Mass Missal, Lives of the Saints, and Church History. For some questions to practice with (though ours will be rather less obscure) you can look at this: http://traditionallearning.com/rcchallenge/.
I would guess (I haven’t seen the question bank, and won’t) that any flash cards or Catholic trivia games you happen to own would be good for practicing. Also brush up on your go-to lists (12 Apostles? 10 Commandments? Gifts of the Holy Spirit?), and so forth — the appendices of most religious ed textbooks contain good starting points.
Good luck, and get your entry forms in early so you don’t have to pay the late registration fee.
I’ve long been interested in service dogs, but something new to me is the idea of a psychiatric service dog. You may have heard of “emotional support animals,” companion animals that help a person stay calm and cope with challenging situations just by being around in a general way. You might think of it as passive support.
A psychiatric service dog, in contrast, is trained to perform specific tasks that actively help the handler through PTSD, anxiety, or other crisis episodes. The dog actively monitors the handler’s well-being, and takes action to intervene or assist when needed.
Now a dear friend of mine is in the process of seeing if he and his dog have what it takes to be formally trained as a psychiatric support dog team — and all signs are very promising.
This is Josef Hathaway:
Josef being himself. Photo by Mary Hathaway, used with permission.
He’s creative and insightful and a natural problem-solver. His father John writes:
Josef was asking about getting an outside cat. Mary facetiously suggested, about an hour before Mass, that he catch one of the feral cats that prowl our yard. A bit later, we’re in our room getting ready and hear a loud crash! I thought another tree had fallen. We heard the girls, but no Joe.
“Josef?!” Mary called.
“Yes?!” called a voice from below our feet.
“What are you doing?”
“You said I could trap a cat!” He was in the basement, pulling out the old dog cages.
“I also suggested you clean your room!”
“Yeah, but that’s boring!”
He’s funny and playful and loving. This is a story Mary tells about Joseph and one of his three sisters:
Josef (menacingly): Gianna, you’re about to have a HEART ATTACK!
I turn around, and he proceeds to attack her by throwing paper hearts at her. (Phew.) LOL
Josef also has high functioning autism (Asperger’s) with a mood disorder, for which he receives professional treatment supervised by a psychologist specializing in his diagnoses. At home, his parents provide the structure, diet, behavioral interventions, medical care, and family life adaptations designed by his care team for his situation.
One thing that helps him is time spent with animals. Josef volunteered for about seven months in the puppy room at the CSRA Humane Society. The decision to adopt Frank the dog, though, was inspired by another Frank:
Dean Koontz (dog aficionado) led me to Frank Redman, who recommended we get Josef a lab, and we ended up adopting a lab already named Frank, rescued from Hurricane Matthew. That’s his back story. The SPCA brought him over from Charleston to their shelter during the hurricane.
When the family adopted Frank the dog, they were looking for a good companion who enjoyed chasing balls. They had no idea how attuned he would be to the moods of the members of his adopted pack. With no training at all, Frank has already started actively working as a psychiatric service dog.
Mary shares an example of way the Frank helps Josef calm down from a panic attack:
Josef had another panic attack.
Fifteen minutes before “Contractors for Christ” [coming to help the family with yard maintenance] showed up…he locked himself in his bedroom (John has now removed the door handle), and he was sobbing.
Frank came back and started barking at the door. John was able to get in, and Frank kept jumping up on Josef (kindly–not vicious) and barking at him and pawing at his hands so he would have to stop hurting himself.
Josef then went and closed himself in the closet, and then Frank barked at the door, I opened it, and he again came in and sat down with Josef and barked at him gently to calm down.
Josef was pretty stirred up–he gets anxious about anyone coming over, even if it’s someone he’s known for a while–so, he was still not 100%. But, thanks to Frank, he calmed down, thankfully.
Here’s an example of how attuned Frank is to Josef’s mood, and how quickly he intervenes to help:
Josef just talked to Frank Redman via Skype, and Josef joked that he was scared of something and fake whimpered. Frank came bolting into the room and started licking his hand.
This is all raw talent. The Hathaways are arranging to consult with a professional psychiatric service dog trainer, to determine if Frank and Josef are candidates for training as a team.
Photo of Frank and Josef, copyright John & Mary Hathaway, used with permission.
Something a lot of people involved in the pro-life movement do is to stand up for the unborn by praying outside of abortion clinics. Happily, this effort has gone in a much more positive, loving direction over the last 15 years. It’s not even accurate, in most cases, to call these “protests” anymore. Make no mistake, this presence is intended to bring attention to the defense of the most vulnerable in our society. To take an innocent human life is objectively wrong. To take the most innocent of all human lives is unacceptable. There should be no minced words about that. To be silent is false compassion – it’s spiritual and emotional euthanasia.
However, it is incredibly important to heed that ancient axiom to ‘hate the sin, but love the sinner’. We all have an obligation to point out injustice and wrongdoing. However, none of us has any right to condemn the person carrying out that act, as only God knows their heart. So, if you see or hear someone telling a woman considering an abortion that she’s going to Hell, then they clearly don’t understand the point here, nor do they understand Christ-like love.
The much more common scenario these days is people calmly and quietly standing outside abortion clinics praying. Sometimes they hold signs with slogans like, “Pray to End Abortion”, or “Adoption: The Loving Option”. We’re there to provide women in unplanned pregnancies real choices (having literature on alternatives to abortion available) and to let them know how much they (and their babies) are loved.
This reality makes it that much more bewildering when you’re standing there peacefully praying and someone drives by and gives you the finger. Admittedly, there was a time when such actions irritated me. They fed a desire deep down in my heart to give that person “what for”. While I knew that wasn’t the proper reaction, it seemed instinctive.
Then, I read Abby Johnson’s book, “Unplanned” a few years ago. For those who don’t know Abby, she was a former director of a Planned Parenthood clinic. Then, one day (through some fluky circumstances), she ended up witnessing an actual abortion at her clinic. (This was the first time she saw the product of the business she was running.) She had a visceral reaction and knew she had to quit. And she did. Since then, she’s been an outspoken voice for life, and she wrote this book.
What “Unplanned” showed me (much to my surprise) was the humanity of abortion clinic workers. Honestly, I had never given these people much thought, other than as some kind of faceless monsters. That caused my praying for a culture of life to take on a much broader focus. Only then did a human face start to appear on these folks for me. These are real human beings who deserve our love, who deserve MY love, because to cast them aside would mean I just don’t get what it means to be a Christian.
That realization also helped my attitude towards the bird flippers driving by. (You know who you are!) J All of a sudden, my immediate response when being flipped off was to have compassion. I’d immediately think to myself, “What kind of pain must that person have suffered to feel this way?” “What is the source of that anger?” And by making that pain and anger clear to me, therein lay the ‘blessing’. By having a reaction – of any sort – that person gave my prayer a target. I would launch into a ‘Hail Mary’ or a Divine Mercy chaplet asking God to rain down His love and mercy on that person. I’d pray that they find healing, peace, and the presence of God.
So, if you see me (or any of the 1000s of other regulars) standing outside an abortion clinic praying and encouraging others to choose life, it’s okay if you feel the need to tell us we’re #1 with your middle finger. But know that prayer is powerful, and that I’m calling for all God’s truth, mercy, and love to come showering down on you very soon. And I thank you for giving me that blessing – that reminder of your humanity. Please pray for me, as well. I need all I can get.
And for all you awesome pro-life prayer warriors out there, please consider this unsolicited advice. Arguments don’t help. Love, prayer, and genuine compassion (and the willingness to listen) do.
Vincent married up more than a quarter century ago and is a proud father of 5 wonderful daughters. He teaches business classes at a college in Greenville, SC, but thrives on discussing controversial topics, especially as they relate to Church teachings on sexual morality.
“Um. No thanks. I’ll clip this green hand-sanitizer holder to my belt loop. That’ll work.”
More St. Patrick’s Day:
Same child, having solved the green problem and moving on: “St. Patrick was supposed to come last night and leave us candy.”
Skeptical mother: “Oh was he, now?”
“Or green toys or something. Or a leprechaun comes.”
Mother, still skeptical: “Oh I see.”
“It’s okay. He can come tonight instead.”
Then, Saturday morning . . .
“Mom. St. Patrick forgot to come last night.”
Mother: “St. Patrick doesn’t come to our house.”
“Or a leprechaun. All my friends get candy from the leprechaun on St. Patrick’s day.”
“All your friends, eh? What are the names of those friends?”
Hems and haws for a moment, then clarifies that it’s actually her sister’s friends. “All of A’s friends at St. Urban’s get candy.”
“Oh do they? What are the names of those friends?”
“Um. Well there’s Benedicta.”
Mother is not surprised. Benedicta’s mother is like that. “Anyone else?”
“Isn’t she Benedicta’s sister?”
“Well, yes. But they both got candy. The leprechaun comes to their house.”
“The leprechaun doesn’t come to our house. Good try.”
Good problems, Catholic School edition: When your child is sobbing and begging to be allowed to go to school, and swears she really isn’t that sick.
Weird problems, Saint Books edition:
Bored child: “Mom, do we have any of those little saint books but that aren’t about someone who becomes a monk or a nun and all they do is pray?”
Mother chooses not to argue, though there may have been a slight eye roll. “Um. Let’s go look.” Thumbing through the shelf that contains middle-grades saint books, Mother pounces on St. Isaac Jogues, who was neither a monk nor a nun. “How about this one?”
Child frowns and shakes head. “No. I want one of these saint books.”
Ah. Well. In that case . . . “How about this one?”
1.1 This morning, an unwary child says: “I haven’t decided what to give up for Lent.”
Evil Dictator: “Not to worry. I’ve got you covered.”
Between cutting out extraneous sugar and sending us all to bed on time, child, it’s gonna be a long Lent. But a calm one, so we hope.
1.2 A different, diligent little Catholic bear, was determined to set a fixed penance. “What if I give up Netflix and Amazon?”
“What’s your goal?” Evil Dictator inquires.
Discussion ensues. Child finally resolves, after taking advice, to write on her card to turn in at school: “I will give up all TV and movies, with the exception of shows my parents or teacher tell me to watch.”
1.3 Good problems: And your Catholic school student wants you to come to the school Mass in the morning, which is always very good . . . and your spouse and your boy are going to be singing Allegri’s Misere Mei Deus at the evening service. Here’s an abridged version:
Another version, unabridged, and with girls in it:
So yes, I went to both. Ashes and Holy Communion at Mass #1, and then sat back and enjoyed the music and prayed along at Mass #2.
1.5 My school child wasn’t so keen to double-dip, and asked if maybe I could require her to watch a little Netflix while I was at the second Mass. Well, darling, funny you should mention that. Evil Dictator’s got quite the talent for finding all the kids’ French-language videos on YouTube, and that’s something you need to be watching over the next few months.
I pulled up tabs of French-language entertainment and . . . she read books instead. Her English is gonna be excellent before Lent is out.
1.6 So I show up at church for Mass #2 and Father Gonzo takes a look at me and says: “Did I do that?!”
He [Jesus] said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
One of the reasons I think that people get upset about the question of divorce, remarriage, and Holy Communion is that they don’t understand what’s happening. I’d like to look today at the question of what an annulment is, and I want to do so by way of an analogy. Like all analogies, it is imperfect. Still, I think it sheds light on the overall situation.
An Otherwise Decent Guy Gets Into a Mess
Imagine you’re a young man in your twenties. Like many young people, you were a tad promiscuous during college, something you shouldn’t have done, but, well, you did. One Saturday morning you answer the door and one of your college girlfriends is standing there, with a darling little boy at her side. He’s the spitting image of his mother.
Your ex-girlfriend explains that the boy is probably yours. She apologizes for not informing you sooner, and appeals to your better self and asks you to do the right thing. The boy needs his father to be in his life.
A Decent Guy Becomes a Stand-up Guy
After you recover from the shock if it all, you do exactly what she was hoping: You agree that of course you will do your best to be a good father to any child of yours.
This isn’t going to be easy. There are good reasons you and the boy’s mother stopped dating each other. There will be lots of complications to work through. You are now going to have to devote a massive amount of time and income and emotional reserve to the rearing of this boy. You’ll have to reorganize your career and personal plans to make sure you can give this boy the attention from you that he deserves. It’s not easy to be a parent, and it’s even harder when you aren’t married to your child’s mother.
But you are a decent human being, and the least you can do in this world is be a good father to your own child. It’s not something you have to think about. Of course you’ll do it, you tell her.
Except There’s This Other Guy
There’s one hitch though: Neither of you are 100% sure you’re the father.
The dates all work out, but honestly? She was a tad promiscuous herself. There’s at least one other college friend who might be the father instead.
Your ex-girlfriend thinks it’s more likely that you are the father, which is why she came to you first. She asks you to take a paternity test, which will clear up all doubt. You agree that’s a good idea.
Why Does Paternity Matter?
Let’s review two important facts:
It’s quite likely you are the father.
You have every intention of being the best father you can to this little boy, if he is in fact your son.
But still, it’s important in this complicated situation to ascertain paternity if possible. Why? Two reasons:
It’s important because the boy has a right to be reared by his own father, if possible. There are many situations in which, unfortunately, a child cannot be raised by his own biological parents. But if it is possible, he and his parents will both rightly want that to happen.
Likewise it’s important because the responsibilities of a man towards his own child are significantly different than his responsibilities towards children in general.
You’re a stand-up guy. If the boy isn’t yours, you’ll still wish him and his mother well, and you’ll do all the things that any decent man does to help the children of his community. But it would not be fair to you to expect you to rear a child to whom you have no particular connection, and it also would not be fair to the boy and his real father.
The two of them deserve the opportunity to be father and son, if that is possible. It would be an injustice for you to step in and presume the rights that properly belong to some other man.
What’s a Marriage Tribunal?
A marriage tribunal is something like a paternity test. A paternity test attempts to answer the question: Am I the father of this child? A marriage tribunal attempts to answer the question: Am I married to this person we’ve assumed until now was my spouse?
As with paternity tests, we don’t examine the validity of marriages except in difficult circumstances — situations where there is reasonable doubt. If you are separated or divorced, the question might reasonably come up. Whatever circumstances led to the separation might hint that no valid marriage was ever contracted in the first place.
Like a paternity test, the purpose of a marriage tribunal isn’t to give you the answer you want, its purpose is to give you the truth: Do I have a solemn and irrevocable bond with this other person, or do I not?
Photo: The Beirtan house for divorcing people, via Wikimedia. The photographer’s description explains: “This small building stands next to the church of Biertan (Birthälm). There was the habit to close there for two weeks the couples that wanted to divorce. Inside there was only a bed and the necessary to eat. It actually worked because in 400 years only one couple eventually decided to break up.” By Alessio Damato [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0].
This time a year ago, my littlest homeschooler asked if she could go to St. Urban’s, the elementary school that serves several parishes in the region. We knew some of the families at the school and liked what we saw. She had made friends with girls her age at parish events. It was not an agonizing decision, because we had already been considering the move for about a year. We did a little more research and decided this was the time.
Our experience so far has been nothing but positive. Since this is Catholic Schools Week, let me share a few of the reasons we love our school.
Everyone is kind and friendly.
When I was researching the school, I spoke to a friend who had volunteered there and at a number of other elementary schools in the region. She said to me: “I can honestly say that St. Urban’s is what a Christian school should be.”
The administration actively works to promote kindness and encouragement among the students. Recently on the drive into town my daughter told me she had to write a persuasive paper, and she had chosen the topic ofwhether there ought to be school uniforms. She asked my opinion, and I gave her the long list of reasons mothers love uniforms (thank you, school, for a simple, stain-resistant, affordable set of uniform options). I finished up by adding, “And that way, for example, a mean girl can’t say oh your skirt is so ugly, because she’s wearing the same skirt.”
To which my daughter replied: “Mom. This is St. Urban’s. We don’t have bullies. The worst thing that happened is that Scholastica wanted to play with Benedicta at recess but not Ignatia, and then they all ended up playing together anyway.”
The friendliness is welcoming to me, too. The administration respects my time. The school’s academic reputation isn’t built on sending home young children with mountains of homework every night. We parents aren’t saddled with a bazillion overwhelming volunteer projects and fundraisers. When teachers or staff do ask for parent help, they take into account our varying circumstances.
I know some private schools have a “type” of parent, and if you don’t fit in you’re on the outs. Our school is truly Catholic — truly diverse. Not just in terms of race and national origin (though there is that), but also in terms of the parents’ professions, state in life, personalities, and dare I say it: social class. It’s not a prep school, it’s a parish school.
Our faith as Catholics is 100% supported.
The school Mass is both beautiful and edifying. Prayer is part of the rhythm of the day. There are Bible verses on the walls, a well-delivered religion curriculum, and an enthusiastic attitude towards Catholicism that permeates everything the school does. I don’t know all the teachers very well, but I know that the two teachers who have the most influence on my daughter both exhibit a sincere and profound faith.
Before she went to school, my daughter was homeschooled by me. There are ways the Catholic faith was shared in our homeschool that don’t happen at the parish school, but the reverse is also true. When I came to eat lunch with my daughter, I asked her as we sat down and pulled out lunch bags, “Do we wait for grace?”
“We already said grace in our classroom,” she said. “And also the Angelus.”
The children ate and then talked quietly. The teacher who was serving as lunch monitor complimented the children, as a group, on how her husband had been moved to tears by their beautiful singing that Sunday at Mass. The children swept up and prepared to leave. Before dismissal to recess, everyone stood and faced the massive crucifix in the cafeteria and prayed the second grace, thanksgiving after the meal.
My daughter’s teachers know her.
The school is small. There are about fifteen children in each grade (it varies), so that the total school enrollment hovers comfortably within knowable limits. (See here for the theory of Dunbar’s Number, andhere for TheNew Yorker’s explanation of it. I have found this to be true in practice.) My daughter has been with the school less than six months, and already knows the names of all the students except the very youngest. But more important me: Her teachers have time to know her.
When I went to the parent-teacher conference after the first quarter, the 5th grade teacher sat down with me and talked about my daughter. She talked about my daughter’s strengths and weaknesses; what she needed to work on; and how her transition to school was going. To all of it, my only answer was: Yes, you are correct.
I’ve been teaching and rearing this child for ten years, I know her. All these things you describe? That’s my girl. You’ve paid attention, you’ve gotten to see the real her, you obviously care about her. She’s not lost here. There’s a real relationship going on, rooted in both love and quantity-time spent together getting to know one another.
The curriculum is well-chosen.
Between homeschooling and my years of small-format teaching in religious education, chastity education, parenting classes, French, economics, logic, debate, apologetics, can’t remember what else, and maybe a little tutoring here and there . . . I’ve evaluated curriculum. Oh and I wrote a book that has a thing or two to say about how to structure a class.
If nothing else, I know how to see whether a class is working or not, and what is or isn’t successful.
Everything that happens at our parish school makes sense.
Sometimes the book the teacher is using is right off my shelves, sometimes it’s one I’ve never heard of before. But I am still waiting for the day when I see some assignment or activity and can’t figure out what the point is. Everything I’ve seen so far fits with the goal. I can immediately see why the teacher chose a particular activity, and how it fits into the bigger picture. There is no busy-work. Everything converges on a well-built whole.
Sure, I’d heard it was a decent school, but I wasn’t quite expecting it to be this good. I’ll take it.
The school makes the most of its strengths.
One of the mistakes people make about homeschooling is thinking that it’s supposed to be just like school. That approach doesn’t work. Homeschooling isn’t for that. Homeschooling has a dynamic that’s unlike school, and that’s part of the point. If you try to re-create school at home, you’ll be harried and overwhelmed. The trick to homeschooling is to make the most of the distinctive strengths that only homeschooling can offer.
My parish school does that too.
There are ways to teach and learn that can only happen when you’ve got a dozen or so students the same age. There are cooperative projects with other programs nearby that take advantage of St. Urban’s downtown location. Even the way the classes are organized teacher-by-teacher makes sense developmentally — at least in the upper grades, which is what I’ve seen, the right teacher is assigned to each grade and specialty subject.
My daughter loves it there.
No school can be everything to everybody. My daughter thrives on structure, gentle but firm discipline, clearly stated learning objectives, and frequent feedback via formal assessments. Any time a child changes school systems there’s an adjustment period. She didn’t arrive at school having mastered The Way Things Are Done Here. Her teachers brought her up to speed through a steady combination of clear correction and enthusiastic encouragement.
She’s a normal kid. Left to her own devices, she’d gladly sit around watching sitcoms and eating endless bowls of ice cream. There’s a time and place for leisurely pleasures, but what she gets at St. Urban’s — the reason she’s excited to go to school every day — is the profound happiness that comes from having her genuine needs met so well. Her need for love, her need for guidance, her need for growth: Everyone at the school works together to do their part in meeting those needs.
Addendum: About that award she got.
Some people from the parish who read this blog might be thinking You’re just all rosy in the afterglow of your kid getting an award after Mass this morning. Truth? It’s the other way around. I started writing this post in my head months ago, and sat on it because I kept waiting for the inevitable bad day to show up so I wouldn’t be all honeymoon-googly-eyes. I started writing this post on my PC earlier this week, but it’s been coming along slowly because my primary vocation keeps getting in the way.
And thus before I could finish writing, first semester Awards Day came around. You know what happened? They quick gave out certificates to the honor roll kids, and then moved on to the big event.
What’s the big event? Grade by grade, each teacher gave a short talk about two students in her class who merited particular distinction. One student was lauded for attitude, effort, and improvement academically — not for grades earned, but for the student’s perseverance and diligence regardless of academic difficulties. The other honored student was praised, in descriptive detail, for kindness, integrity, piety, generosity — all the virtues that aren’t about being Number One, and are about being more like Jesus Christ.
I was asked two related questions by parish friends this week, and I answered incorrectly:
What things do we do to help our kids “Keep Christ in Christmas”?
What are we doing for Advent?
I thought the answer to both was: Nothing. This year, anyway.
I was sorely mistaken. Since both these are going to be discussion topics for our Family Fellowship group this week, here are my notes so I can keep my facts straight. These are things we do, and which have held together through the years, and which I think are probably helpful. Some are easy for anyone to do, some of them maybe not.
#1 Be a Disciple of Jesus Christ
When the SuperHusband and I first became Christians, I was a little disconcerted to notice how little our extended family’s observances of the feast involved any particular worship of Christ. It had not bothered me before, but now somehow it seemed wrong to gather together for a meal and gifts and not much Jesus-ing. A lot of years later, I’m not bothered. Those of us who are Christians get plenty of Jesus-ing all year long, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and we don’t need every single moment of every single feast to have a little cross tacked on it.
(For the record, there is a very Christian grace before the big extended-family supper Christmas Eve and plenty of Christian-household backdrop going on. We’re not celebrating Festivus or something.)
My point is this: When every day and every week of your life is built around the worship and service of Jesus Christ, there’s not a need to make sure your wrapping paper has manger scenes on it. Both the “Christ” and the “Mass” in “Christmas” are patently obvious. Forgetting that Christmas was about the birth of Christ would be like forgetting what your own birthday was about. It’s unlikely to be problem.
#2 Dang I Love My Parish
My DRE has a passion for keeping Advent, and the pastor’s completely on board. (Yes, it unrolled in that order — she predates him on the staff roster.) Rather than rushing to quick celebrate Christmas with the kids before the break, there are Advent events throughout Advent, and Christmas is unleashed on — get this — Christmas. The religious ed classes host Christmas parties the first class back after the break, while it’s still Christmas season.
This is not just good for holding onto Catholic liturgical order. This is good because it causes us all to be keenly aware we are out of sync with the wider culture, and therefore aware of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. It also gives me a little bit of ammo in my effort to keep things purple around the house, though admittedly that’s push-and-pull. Yes, in fact we do have the best Advent Lights on the block. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
But I would say the biggest help we get in terms of the parish enthusiasm for observing Advent is that it completely prevents our brains from equating what we do as Catholics with that merchandising event going on at the mall.
#3 We’ve got a great Advent calendar.
The one we happen to own is the Tony Wolf Advent Calendar, which I reviewed when I first got it years ago. Each day from December 1st through 24th there is a mini boardbook ornament that contains a Bible story, prayer, hymn or carol. All put together you get the highlights of the story of Christmas from Adam and Eve forward. There is no Christmas Advent tree up yet this year, so I told my ten-year-old to hang the ornaments on the hooks on the mantel where our stockings will eventually go.
She loves this. She loves reading aloud the day’s mini-book, singing along if it’s a hymn, and keeping all the ornaments organized on their hooks. The other kids are older now, so the ten-year-old’s the chief user. I remember myself having a little mini-book Christmas ornament and how much I liked to read it (mine was The Night Before Christmas). Bite-sized books are captivating.
There are other similarly good options, it doesn’t have to be this exact product. I remember growing up that my best friend’s family had a homemade Advent calendar with pertinent Bible verses for each day — same principle. I think the takeaway here on why this concept works so well is that kids like to open a new thing every day, so they bring the momentum to the daily observance, and the day’s thing isn’t just a piece of chocolate or a picture from a snowy village, it’s a piece of the Good News.
#3.5 We Stink At Advent Wreaths, Forever and Ever Amen
For your amusement, here’s a photo from a glorious Advent past:
I would have kept the thing, but it was too bulky to store easily. This year we’ve got an assortment of mismatched white candles with purple or pink ribbon tied around the base. We never remember to light them.
I’m completely in favor of Advent wreaths. I have happy childhood memories of lighting the candles at dinner every evening. We just aren’t there. Sorry.
As we dropped the ball on this one in recent years, some friends have picked up the relay. Mrs. A who first started hosting an Advent tea party every year (most years) when our girls were little has merged that tradition with a potluck supper and caroling party afterwards. It’s a good event. We stick to classic Christian carols (Silent Night, We Three Kings, What Child Is This, etc.) plus We Wish You a Merry Christmas. We only plague neighbors who show evidence of celebrating Christmas, so we’re not foisting our zeal on innocent bystanders. The response has been 100% positive.
We’re up to 4/6ths of the family now singing in some choir or another at church, so the kids get a strong dose of sacred music there as well. We go to one of those parishes where the songs are all about Jesus, which is a big boost.
Or Bethlehem, as you prefer. Way back at the time of our first caroling party (before kids), I didn’t have a nativity set, so I made one out of Lego bricks. Since that time we’ve added humans to the family and all kinds of toys. Playmobil. Fisher Price. Little Woodzees. All that stuff. Thus we have evolved an annual tradition of creating not just the manger scene but a good bit of Bethlehem and environs.
We’ve had years that featured Herod’s castle and a Roman circus (the better to eat you with, my dear), though the best was during the preschool years when we had the big red barn with the door that mooed. A traditional nativity set can sometimes look too much like Camping with Baby Jesus — Pass the S’mores. The circumstances of the Incarnation hit home more soundly when you’ve got a neighborhood of cozy cheerful dollhouses, and then the Holy Family camped out in what truly looks to modern eyes like a place only fit for farm animals.
This year, having just pared back the toy collection, we’re focusing on the unrolling of the historic events day by day. Right now the angels are all up in Heaven, at the top of the bookshelf in front of the vintage Hardy Boys collection, waiting for the big day. (That is what Heaven is like, right?) Mary and Joseph are in a caravan headed towards the city of David. The Wise Men are still home watching the sky. The stable is busy being just a stable, though the innkeeper — you might remember this from your Bible study — likes to come by every day and visit with his pet bunnies. St. Ignatius Montessori, pray for us.