To be fair, my husband and I are not very religious. We were both raised Catholic, we went to Boston College, one of the top Catholic Universities in the Country, but to say we have grown disillusioned with our Church of late is an understatement. Additionally, with the strong theological background I got from Boston College, and being raised in a family where questioning was encouraged, I can honestly say, there is much about the Catholic faith I no longer believe. And yet, if you asked me, I would still identify as Catholic. Being Catholic is not just about the doctrine to me, it is also very cultural. Much of my childhood is wrapped up in the traditions of my family's Catholic faith and that is indeed something that is important to me and something my husband and I both want to pass on to our children. So, while we rarely go to church, we still see the value in a Church community. We have the intention of going to church more regularly when our children are older and can get more out of it. But presently, it is not how we choose to spend our Sunday mornings. But, we have always made a point to go on the "big days." Yes, we are one of the "hypocrites" (as my father-in-law would call us) that make it difficult for all the regular church-goers to get a seat on Christmas and Easter.
For the past 5 years we have traipsed each of our kids (currently almost 6, almost 3, and 14 months) to mass on Christmas eve. We get dressed in our dressy Christmas clothes. We get there early (at least 30 minutes) to try to get a seat, though we never do. If we got there early enough to get a seat (at least an hour) our kids would be DONE before mass even started. So, we cram into the back of the church where our kids can't see anything and have to stand. We try to engage them. We explain what is happening. We lift them up to watch the beautiful Christmas pageant that is so well done by the kids, but they can neither see nor hear very well. We try to be overly enthusiastic when singing songs in order to keep their attention. And despite all our best efforts we each end up taking turns walking the kids around outside, trying to distract them, and feeding them Cheerios. No one really gets anything out of it. My husband and I had a long chat about how we could spend this time in a more meaningful way. So, this year will be different.
On Christmas Eve during the time that we would be going to church, we will instead be taking our children to a homeless shelter for women and children that serves our local community. We will go to Sarah's House and bring food, diapers, and toys for each of the 30 children who currently call this shelter home. This past Sunday the boys shopped with Daddy for the food, taking the time to talk about what kind of healthy food we should get, while including a few kid friendly snacks like Goldfish. Yesterday they shopped for diapers with me, and we also picked out 30 small toys. Ryan and Zachary were so engaged in choosing small toys that "any kid" could like since we don't know the ages of the kids. At one point I said, "what can we get for the babies?" Clearly, the fact that we had bought diapers hadn't really clicked with Ryan yet and he said, "Babies live there? There are babies who don't have a home?" The sadness and hurt on his little face was heartbreaking. And yet, he then immediately got to searching for the perfect toy for a baby, while also realizing that we don't know how many babies there are. So, he chose a collection of balls saying, "Babies love balls! But big kids can have fun with them too!" He turned his sadness about the realization that yes, there are babies that don't have a home into action. And that is a skill I hope my boys will carry with them far in life.
In addition to the toys, food, and diapers, Ryan, Zachary and I have been working on 30 hand made cards to go with each of the toys. We've talked a lot about how living in a homeless shelter, despite being surrounded by other people can be a very lonely experience. We've talked about how sometimes the people who live there might feel forgotten, and that by making these cards and giving these gifts we hope that each of the children and their parents will feel a little less forgotten this Christmas.
Our intent is to make this a tradition each Christmas for our family. I also hope to volunteer at this shelter with the boys throughout the year so that when we donate at Christmas time, it is a tangible place that they know and have a relationship with.
None of this is to say that Church isn't meaningful. And certainly, we could go to church and do what we're doing for the shelter, and one day, when the kids are a bit older, we will do both. But for now, this is what makes sense for our family. We will begin our Christmas Eve with the reading of the book I created for the kids the first year I was a mom. It's called "The True Meaning of Christmas" and it is a book that talks about how Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus. We've read this book often. But we will read it again. It explains that we celebrate Jesus' birth because he was a good man, who treated everyone with kindness and compassion, and who taught others how to live the same way. It doesn't even mention Jesus being the son of God...because if we're being honest, I'm not certain he is. I'll leave it to my kids to decide for themselves what they believe. But at the very least, I can fully embrace celebrating Christmas as a way to remember a man who lived life the way we should all seek to live our lives: in the service of the greater good. And so, this Christmas, my kids won't hear the Nativity story at mass. But they will experience a little taste of what it means to live like Jesus...and that, that is what Christmas is all about.