By Bill Van Loh
As we approach Christmas 2016, it is marvelous to share in the growing wonder and joy of the young people in our Catholic schools. We are, of course, also part of the larger culture with its high degree of commercialism. However, beyond that, our students come to experience and understand the real reason for celebrating Christmas: that is, God sending the gift of his Son to take human form and be with us as our Savior. From that night in Bethlehem to the cross on Calvary and Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday, we continually strive to increase our understanding of this marvelous mystery of salvation.
At Queen of Peace, as with other Catholic schools in our diocese, students and teachers study the biblical and historical aspects of Christmas and, moreover, what it really means to us in our faith. Each week we learn more in our religion classes and through the readings and homilies in our school Masses. We also learn through various projects while doing service for others, following the example of Jesus. In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, we collected nonperishable food items, brought them to the altar at our school Mass and took them to the local food shelf. In November each year, we hold a Christmas wreath sale. It is both a fundraiser and a way to share in a Christmas tradition with deeper meanings. How many of us know about the Christian symbolism of the wreath?
Wreaths combine several Christmas symbols, including holly, fruit, mistletoe, evergreens, tinsel and so on. All of these retain their symbolism in the wreath. The word wreath comes from an Old English word, meaning to writhe or twist. In early times, greens were twisted into a circle and used as crowns for kings, military leaders and athletes. Wreaths, because of their circular shape, symbolize eternity, the circle of life and endless hope, and it has become a wonderful tradition to display them at Christmas time. Because a wreath has neither a beginning nor an\ end, but is a continuous circle, it has come to symbolize God himself.
In addition, while many plants lose their leaves in the fall and remain dead-looking all winter, evergreens retain their green leaves or needles all year round. As Christian Christmas symbols, evergreens symbolize perseverance and resiliency to adversity. They remind us of Jesus’ words, “The ones who persevere to the end shall be saved.” This reminds us that our faith must remain active and full of vitality in all spiritual, economic, political and social environments.
At Queen of Peace School, we carry this understanding forward into the first weeks of December, as we hold our weekly school Advent services in preparation for Christ’s arrival among us. Each Monday morning, we gather in the school hallway to read, pray and sing, in anticipation of his coming. Students are also led to be aware of the special symbolism of the wreath and the candles during each of the weeks of Advent. We light a new candle each week, first for hope, next for peace, then for joy, and finally the candle of love.
With the light of the candles we signify the love of God that surrounds and fills us at all times.
Also, in early December we host our annual Home for the Holidays festival and chili and spaghetti dinner. This is part of an outreach to the larger Cloquet community, celebrating our shared values and our common need for connecting with neighbors. Finally, our students have also been busy preparing the annual Christmas music program for our Queen of Peace school and parish community. It is another wonderful way to demonstrate our devotion to keeping Christ in Christmas.
The thousands of Advent and Christmas hymns and songs provide an almost endless supply of terrific opportunities for our children to become immersed in the music of our faith. In 2015, our program focused on the “O” Antiphons, giving the children and our community a new connection to an ancient tradition. This year the children will be singing Christmas songs from all over the world, linking us with faithful Catholics across the bounds of time and space. If we don’t do this in Catholic schools, where will it happen?
Keeping Christ in the forefront of the daily lives of our next generation of youngsters is our mission and practice in the Catholic schools.
Do you have a child, or someone near and dear to you in one of our Catholic schools? If your answer is yes, you already know the wonderful things I am describing. If your answer is no, please consider changing that to “not yet” and check into the opportunities at your local Catholic school.
On behalf of our Catholic school’s students and staff, we wish you a very merry and blessed Christmas season!
Bill Van Loh is the principal of Queen of Peace School in Cloquet.