According to the culture that surrounds us, the Christmas season begins right after Halloween and ends as the clock strikes midnight on December 26th. If you are a Catholic, however, you know that this is not the calendar we follow. To us, Christmas begins on December 25th and is joyfully welcomed and celebrated in the following days and weeks. Whether you celebrate the wonderful season until the Epiphany on January 6th or until the Presentation of our Lord on February 2nd, there are many days dedicated to celebrating and giving thanks for Christ’s birth.
The days leading up to Christmas break were jam-packed with preparations for the Christmas concert, assessing students’ skills, ensuring each student was doing their best on their work, all while trying to find a balance between rigorous academics and fun ways to celebrate the upcoming holiday. I was tempted in past years, especially in a first grade classroom, to begin celebrating Christmas early. But to rush through a season as beautiful as Advent would be to skip over one of the most important seasons in the liturgical year.
When I reflected on my desire to jump to the celebration of Christmas and disregard the weeks of waiting and anticipation of Advent, I realized that I was pushing aside endless opportunities to see the hope, the peace, and the love that were present all around us in the Advent season. This year, I made an intentional decision to live out the season of Advent with my students as well as we could. One way we did this was through an activity called “Straw for Baby Jesus”. Each time a child did a good deed, they were asked to add a piece of straw to our classroom Nativity to demonstrate how their good works were preparing for Jesus to come. This was my first year doing this activity in the classroom, and each day I was touched by what I was witnessing between my students. Kind words were exchanged, art supplies were shared, manners were used, chairs were pushed in, and scraps were picked up quickly and without hesitation. The virtue of charity was seen throughout the days leading up to our Christmas break. The children’s faces lit up when they were asked to add a piece of straw to the manger, but it was even sweeter to witness their excitement when a friend was asked to add straw for a good deed of their own.
My favorite part of the “Straw for Baby Jesus” activity was the way it taught the students that by loving others, they are loving Jesus. I noticed the children were not acting virtuously so that they could be rewarded – they didn’t receive a prize or a sticker. Instead, they became aware how their good works and sacrifices during Advent prepared the way for Jesus to come on Christmas. They were able to better understand Jesus’ words in the parable, “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’” (Mt 25:40).
As we return to school this week, we will begin to celebrate Christmas as a class. To prepare for the Epiphany on Friday, students are going to be moving the three kings closer to the Nativity scene each time they do a good deed. I am looking forward to seeing the love that fills our classroom. I am grateful for the Church’s calendar and for the ability to live and teach liturgically. As countercultural as it may seem, there is something especially beautiful in celebrating Advent during Advent and Christmas during Christmas.
AUTHOR: Emily Whelan, First Grade Teacher