‘Tis the Season

Dec. 11-17, 2003
VOL 122 NO. 44
‘Tis the Season
Blessed Sacrament fifth grader Alanna Hurley,10, lights the Advent candle before the start of school
By Kristen Fox / SUN contributing writers
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
“Make ready the way of the Lord, clear Him a straight path.” — Mark 1:3

It is easy to see that the Christmas season has arrived. Christmas trees, manger scenes and houses decorated with multicolored lights are everywhere in joyful anticipation of the birth of Christ. But for many, the true reason for the season goes much deeper than ornate displays. The liturgical season of Advent –– the four weeks leading up to Christmas –– prepares hearts and minds for the coming of Christ. The word advent comes from the Latin word advenire, which means “coming to” or “arriving at.” During this season some people light candles on an Advent wreath, follow Advent calendars and participate in special family traditions that mark the season. What makes this time different from all the secular preparations for Christmas is that it is filled with great anticipation of Christ’s birth. “During Advent we are counting down the days until Jesus is born,” said Alanna Hurley, a fifth grader at Blessed Sacrament School in Syracuse. Though she is young, Alanna remembers what many people –– some five times her age –– often forget, that Christ is the most important part of Christmas. To celebrate Advent, Alanna and the students at her school, which serves pre-k through sixth grade, gather for a daily prayer service and lighting of the Advent wreath. Principal Andrea Polcaro said that the activity helps students understand the true meaning of Christmas.

“Being a Catholic school, we have the opportunity to celebrate Advent by coming together in prayer,” Polcaro said. “This is how we should be preparing for the holidays –– through faith, prayer and service.” Students will also be donating new socks and winter coats to Frazer Elementary School in Syracuse and Blessed Sacrament Parish Outreach Center, Polcaro noted.

This idea is not unique. Many diocesan students are preparing for Christmas during Advent with acts of kindness. Christmas trees decorate each of the two kindergarten classrooms at Immaculate Conception School in Fayetteville, which serves pre-k through sixth grade. However, the trees are not there just to be admired. In the next three weeks, their green branches will gradually become covered with new mittens, donated by the students and their parents. On Dec. 19, the mittens, along with some scarves and hats, will be brought to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse and the Franciscan Northside Ministry at Assumption Church in Syracuse.

“Our mitten tree holds many different styles and sizes of gloves, mittens and hats that the kindergarten children have been collecting and bringing in since the beginning of Advent,” explained Jane Bodah, kindergarten teacher. “On Christmas we give gifts to the people we love to help us celebrate Jesus Christ’s birthday. This year we will also be giving the gift of warmth to the children in the city who are less fortunate than we are.”

Kathy Higley, also a kindergarten teacher at Immaculate Conception School, said it is very overwhelming to see the outpouring of generosity from students and their parents. “One student wanted to bring in two pairs of mittens. They go above and beyond what we expect,” said Higley. According to Sally Lisi, principal of Immaculate Conception School, though the idea of the mitten tree is simple, the significance is great. “The first lesson of Christmas is how we should reach out and give to others,” Lisi remarked. “Our greatest rewards come from giving.” Polcaro agrees. “There are teachable moments that come from service projects,” she said. “The younger children might not understand a Christmas tree with socks hanging all over it. But when you take a moment to explain to them that some children don’t have warm socks it really opens their eyes. They say, ‘Wow, giving them socks is a great idea.’”

Countless families have also discovered that one or two annual traditions make the season of preparing for Christ’s birth more meaningful. Each custom is as unique as the family celebrating it. Some families use an Advent log, a piece of wood with four candles marking the weeks until Christmas, to help them wait. Others count down the days until Christmas with daily devotional readings. Joan Spector and her family have an annual tradition of lighting the Advent wreath. It provides the opportunity for family devotion and prayer, and helps teach the faith to her two children, said Spector. “We need to make sure that the religious focus of the season does not get lost,” Spector said. “The Advent wreath is a fun way for families to learn about the season.”

In addition to preserving existing traditions, parents and teachers can turn to local resource centers for ideas on starting new ones. The Spiritual Renewal Center, located at 1118 Court St. in Syracuse, provides spiritual direction, courses in spirituality and scripture, workshops and training programs in spiritual direction. Suzanne Kowalczyk, administrative assistant, said that holidays tend to bring an influx of people into the Spiritual Renewal Center. “This time of year brings people into the center who are seeking spiritual direction or who just want quiet time. Maybe some of them haven’t been here before, but now they have an opportunity to see who we are and what we have to offer,” Kowalczyk said, adding that the center has about 6,500 books in its lending library, including some on Advent and Christmas.

The Western Region Resource Center at the Bishop Harrison Center in Syracuse also has shelves of materials to guide teachers, pastors, catechchists and parents in Advent activities. “It is a great place, but underutilized,” Spector said of the Western Region Resource Center. She usually gets there once a month in search of books for her children. “There are so many ideas on things to do with your children, not just during Advent but all year round.” Marge Babcock, administrator of the Western Region Resource Center, said it offers something for everyone. “There are different ideas for everyone depending on their ministries,” she said. “There are prayer service layouts for teachers of all grade levels to use in the classrooms and things families can do to bond during the season.” And for those individuals who are looking for a big project, the resource center offers a few sample plays, which feature Advent-related themes, for children to perform. “Wherever people are celebrating Advent –– in their homes, classrooms or parishes –– we have something that can help,” Babcock said. “Having a few customs or traditions is important.”

Advent, in these modern days of excessive commercialism, has nearly lost its true meaning. But for many people, Advent is an opportunity to focus on how God has blessed them and to discover how they can share these blessings with others. In doing so, they will continue to keep the true Advent spirit alive in their hearts and homes. “We need to celebrate the entire season, not just one day,” said Polcaro.

For more information, contact the Spiritual Renewal Center at (315) 472-6546, or the Western Region Resource Center at (315) 472-6752.

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