Local schoolchildren connect with true meaning of Christmas
While some students appeared to be obsessed with having perfectly sharp pencils, most of the boys and girls kept their heads down and wrote carefully in their journals.
It was a blessed period of thoughtful silence in the middle of a hectic season.
We all know it's true: Even Christians celebrating Christ's birth have slid into the traditions of spending sprees, exhausting obligations and cheesy music.
But faith-based schools find ways to keep Christ at the center of Christmas.
"It can be very difficult to do," said Judi Dillon, principal of St. John Vianney in Janesville. "The secular world takes over everything."
To combat the pull of that world, religious schools use both words and actions to emphasize the true meaning of the holiday.
Combating Christmas craziness is easier when you've been telling the Christmas story all year.
"The whole curriculum we have here is Christ-centered," said the Rev. Mark Linder of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church and School, which is a part of the Wisconsin Lutheran Synod.
Every day "starts and ends with God's word," Linder said.
It's the same at St. John Vianney and other local Catholic schools: Faith isn't an academic subject, it's an essential part of the school day.
Faith and academics
Schools teach students both about the historic events of the holiday and what that means for their lives.
"The fourth-grade students put together a newspaper from the time of Jesus' birth," Dillon said.
This year's edition isn't out yet, but last year's headlines included "Son of God is Born" in the world news section; "Carpenters Build a Manger" in the business section and "The Full Inn and Angry People" in the travel section.
Even the pre-kindergarten students get in on the action. At the beginning of Advent, students made wreaths using paper plates as bases. Then they placed four candles, three purple and one pink, into globs of clay and decorated the plates with greenery.
"It was so beautifully simple," Dillon said.
As each week of Advent passes, the children will light another candle to remind them of the coming of the Christ child.
The second-grade students are taking time each day to do a guided meditation that helps them focus their hearts and minds on the coming of Jesus.
Faith in action
At many schools, children exchange names as part of a "secret Santa" program. At St. Matthew's, students adopt a family in need and bring in "offerings" for that family, Lindner said.
"We try to help them understand the motivation for that; it reflects what God did for us in Christ," Lindner said.
Other activities include caroling at nursing homes, a special Christmas worship service and projects that "extend the Gospel beyond the classroom," Lindner said.
Those activities reflect the message of Christmas and serve as the "Gospel in action."
At. St. John Vianney, classes bring in money to buy presents for children in need.
"They bring in $10 and have the ages and the gender of the children, and they go out and do the shopping," Dillon said.
St. John Vianney students also are involved in service projects throughout the year to re-enforce the message of the Gospels.
Try this at home
Faith-based schools help their students keep focused on the true meaning of Christmas.
What they do isn't complicated, and families can use many of their ideas at home.
-- Make faith a regular part of life, not just a Sunday event.
-- Find a way to "put the Gospel in action" throughout the year: Volunteer at a local soup kitchen or homeless shelter, sign up to be a visitor at a nursing home or simply extend yourself to someone in need. Explain to kids how your activity connects to your values.
-- Make the season of Advent special. If you're stuck for ideas, the public library has plenty of books on how to make the Advent and Christmas more meaningful.