Even more stealthy than the Grinch sneaking in to steal Christmas, the COVID-19 pandemic is silently changing the way Advent and Christmas will be celebrated in parishes and schools this year.
Many have canceled events altogether, from choir concerts to food drives. But Jesus’ birth can be a lesson in simplicity and a willingness to change plans.
Throw in masks and social distancing with some virtual plays, prepackaged cookies and a scaled-back spiritual revival, the faithful are doing what they can to prepare for and celebrate the Savior’s birth.
St. John School in Hot Springs has put on a St. Nicholas Toy Drive “forever,” said Marianne Layne, the school’s director of advancement. For about seven years, each child has brought a toy to donate to the Cooper-Anthony Mercy Child Advocacy Center in Hot Springs, which serves child abuse victims. As a Mercy-founded school with three sisters still on staff, it’s a way to give back to kids in need. Children normally process to the altar with their toys, and seventh- and eighth-grade students deliver the toys and tour the center. This year, Layne said donated toys will be kept in the classrooms, and school administrators will deliver the roughly 100 toys.
“They use these toys to give those children to Christmas. We can’t not do it,” Layne said.
Another long-standing tradition of about 20 years at Our Lady of Fatima School in Benton is students acting out the Nativity story. Principal Jan Cash asked the students what they could do to still hold the play, and they decided to take it outdoors.
Weather permitting, about 50 students will dress up, narrate, and sing outside the gym Dec. 15 as parents park or drive by, hearing the play on the radio through an FM transmitter.
“There’s a pitched roof on the front. We’re going to try to make that into the stable area and hang a 5-foot star,” Cash said. “... We want to make them as comfortable as we can, to make their school situation as un-stressful as we can” amid all the changes this year, she said.
For the littlest children, St. Joseph School in Conway and Christ the King School in Little Rock are going virtual.
Amy Evans, St. Joseph Preschool director, said 51 4- and 3-year-olds will act out “The Friendly Beast,” a poem that tells the story of Jesus’ birth through the eyes of animals at the Nativity. While the children typically perform it in church for their families, this year each class will take on a different role -- from cows to shepherds -- and their performances will be recorded and edited together to give to parents.
“It’s tradition. We didn’t want to cancel this year,” Evans said, but the silver lining is the video is “something parents will have for years to come.”
The first-grade class -- 56 children in all -- at Christ the King is moving forward with a 25-year tradition of the Christmas pageant on Christmas Eve. First-grade teacher Melissa Plafcan said the students retell the Nativity story, complete with costumes and songs. They perform for the school as well, during the Children’s Mass.
This year, the parts have been split between the three classes, so practices can happen in the classroom and the singing parts were reassigned as solos or duos. They will meet socially distanced in the sanctuary, and performances will be recorded and made into a movie to premiere for families and students Dec. 17-18.
“My first-grade team and I kind of had the attitude we are going to figure out a way to do this,” Plafcan said, explaining each grade has a special event annually and this is it for first graders. For kindergarteners, it’s the Kindergarten Circus, which this class missed out on in the spring.
“To be honest, you’d be shocked as to how well these kids have adapted to the different changes” of the pandemic, Plafcan said. “They’re great about wearing their mask and staying apart. And never really question it … it shows how flexible kids can be.”
For 15 years, St. Peter the Fisherman Church in Mountain Home has held a Cookie Walk to raise money for the St. Vincent de Paul Society. It typically raises about $3,000 for the society that will assist anyone in the county with rent, utilities or food.
This year on Dec. 5, instead of giving each participant a glove to pick out a variety of cookies from various trays with their selection weighed at the end, trays of pre-packaged cookies will be sold. Tables will be spread out in the parish hall to accommodate social distancing, and masks will be required. Temperatures will be taken at the door, and each person will get two gloves.
Committee member MaryAnn Sladek makes several dozen cookies for the walk each year as well as 30 loaves of nut bread.
“I think it gets people more in the Christmas mood, and it’s a good way for people to get together,” she said, though she is baking in her home this year instead of at the parish hall.
Theresa Boekholder, who founded the Cookie Walk, said, “People depend on it. We’ve been doing it for so long, and we decided with a little extra work, we can make it work.”
Sister Mary Rose Tin Vu, FMSR, director of religious education at St. Patrick Church in North Little Rock and the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock, said PRE and CYM students are excited to participate in a Dec. 24 Christmas program, a tradition the past three years. The students and teachers take different roles, from prophets to kings, in anticipation of the Savior’s birth. The students also dress as Advent candles, singing a prayerful song of Advent, followed by the Nativity story, Sister Rose said.
This year, there are fewer students -- about 35 -- and each segment will be performed in smaller groups, if it is safe to do so at that time.
“Some parts I have all the kids stand together and sing so this year we’re not going to do that. We’ll use more with the audio (recordings),” she said. “So we’re not going to be doing a lot of singing,” adding activities like this are more vital this year given the emotional toll taken by the pandemic. “I have kids that have depression and now I see them (getting) a little bit better. They get to kind of be able to talk to their friends and get support from us.”
For about three years, Father Leon Ngandu, SVD, pastor of St. Bartholomew Church in Little Rock and St. Augustine Church in North Little Rock, has held an Advent Revival for parishioners with singing, preaching and a penance service. This year’s revival will kick off at each parish’s Sunday Mass Dec. 13 and then at St. Bartholomew on Dec. 14 and Dec. 15 at St. Augustine. Father Ngandu said the singing will be by individuals or couples rather than choirs, and he’ll shorten his preaching time and focus more on confessions, with the revival theme, “I shall get up and go back to my Father.”
“The people are going through a lot, especially during this time of pandemic, so if we do not help ourselves with the spiritual resources, it’s very difficult for our spiritual life, our spiritual growth,” he said. “We are going through a difficult crisis. We do our best by respecting the COVID restrictions but also provide spiritual food to our people. It’s helped us to overcome or to survive during this time of crisis.”
If this year has proven anything, it’s that plans can change or be canceled quickly. Mariella Araujo, Hispanic Ministry director at Immaculate Conception in Fort Smith is hopeful but also realistic about the likelihood of the city approving the annual Our Lady of Guadalupe procession.
Normally held on the closest Sunday to the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe -- this year, the 12th is on a Saturday -- celebrations began with 5 a.m. Mass, breakfast in the parish hall and an 8 a.m. procession with the Our Lady statue, traditional dancers and about 300 people. The three-and-a-half hour long procession ends with a program at the church.
This year, the only planned event is the procession, following mask and distance protocols, with a maximum of 100 people. But the city has yet to approve it.
“I would love for it to happen because I think we need prayers more than ever,” Araujo said. “Our walking is our way of praying, it’s our way of asking God to ask for forgiveness, to help us out, to finish this pandemic.”
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