The young girl in the red, Christmas sweater, posed proudly and excitedly with her gift! It was Christmas! As adults, the magic of Christmas is rightly centered on the birth of Christ. But when we were kids, if we are honest with ourselves, it was all about cookies and treats, Santa Claus and Christmas presents!
But, try to imagine being a child whose family cannot provide the kind of Christmas most of us experienced as children growing up. For most of the children of San Jose Mission, a 122-unit affordable housing complex provided by Catholic Charities to families of migrant farm worker families, this part of Christmas is one they typically didn’t experience prior to moving to San Jose Mission in Dover, Florida.
Every year, volunteers from the surrounding Catholic Churches – primarily St. Stephen (Riverview) – assist the Catholic Charities staff by helping put on Christmas with Santa for these grateful children. Because of their incredible generosity, Santa and Mrs. Claus make the trip to Dover, gifts provided by Catholic Charities – divided by gender and age – are lovingly wrapped, cookies and snacks are baked, music and Christmas Carols are prepared, and Santa’s “Elves” and assistants are made ready. Kim Davis, the volunteer-leader from St. Stephens, who also helps with the Vacation Bible School hosted by the parish each summer, describes the beauty of this day:
“The experience of watching the children meet Santa and Mrs. Claus and receive their gifts is truly heart warming. The families at the mission spend many hours working in the field, and on this day they get to celebrate the joy and spirit of Christmas together. The smiles on the children’s faces is contagious. For many of the families, this is their only opportunity to meet Santa. One little boy shrieked with excitement that his family would finally have items to place underneath their Christmas tree. It is a truly a humbling experience and is a true reminder of true meaning of the Christmas season. “
That excitement sets in almost one month prior to the big day. One week before, the kids can’t stop talking about meeting Santa and what gifts they might receive. The day before most of the children have a hard time sleeping and reluctantly go to school, finding it difficult to focus because they can’t help but think about the evening’s events! According to Maria Barrios, San Jose Mission Housing Manager, “this is such a wonderful event, I’m pretty sure the kids are ready for next year’s Christmas by mid-January.”
Then the big day! Hundreds of children rush home from school and wait for their parents to return from work and get in line to sign-in and wait for the magical moment when they can sit on Santa’s lap and receive a present. The joy and wonder in their eyes is heart-warming. Ms. Socorro Prisco, lead-staff organizer of the special event says, “The joy it brings in the lives of these children to make Christmas a reality, the joy and happiness that is reflected in their faces, makes the long and arduous hours of work worthwhile.”
Inside, the volunteers have piled the gifts high and have set out cookies for the children and their families. Santa and Mrs. Claus are anxiously waiting and the photographer is at the ready to capture the moment!
As they wait in line, volunteers from the local church youth groups, pass out cookies and sing Christmas Carols to the revelers. Once inside, the families are greeted with Christmas music and the readied treats as they wait to meet Santa and Mrs. Claus.
Santa and Mrs. Claus are decked out in their finest red velveteen, seated on plush, richly-appointed chairs befitting…well, Santa and Mrs. Claus. Santa is in his familiar bright red tunic and pants trimmed with soft, whispy, white (faux) fur. Santa’s beard and Mrs. Claus’ hair as white as Christmas snow! Santa wearing his familiar hat and black boots!
Once the big moment happens, and they clamber up on Santa’s lap, the joyous moment is captured by a professional photographer and his assistant-wife who both volunteer their time to provide each family with their photo with Santa that helps make this exciting day one the children and their families will remember long afterward! As they depart, each child receives an additional package, called a share box, that is assembled by the youth of St. Stephens’ Faith Formation classes and contains toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, combs, hair brushes, and a small toy. Of the share boxes, Ms. Davis said:
“While it may not seem like much to other people, these share boxes are so important to the children at the San Jose Mission, and they truly treasure everything inside the box. The joy on their faces when they receive their boxes truly radiates the true meaning of Christmas. It is not about the gifts themselves, but the act of giving and serving these very deserving families.”
The children are not the only ones who benefit. According to Ms. Rosie Bridges, Director of Faith Formation at St. Stephen, “It is such a blessing for us at St. Stephen to bring the love of Christ during the Christmas Holiday Season to the families and children at the San Jose Mission. It is a memorable day together providing donated gifts, food and most of all joy! “
As the day neared its conclusion, one young boy raced out with his present and all he could say was, “I got a….” before his words became garbled with excitement. The little girl in the red Christmas sweater, who was running to catch up to her mother and siblings, and saw this stranger with a camera and quickly stopped to show off her present, was so excited she hadn’t even torn off the wrapping paper to see what she received. As she proudly showed off her present, she smiled from ear to ear!
What a view!