The “Santa vigil” and principles for engaging young Christians in liturgy

I have a three-year-old and an infant and a cordial distaste for cry rooms. This means I have, well, probably as much interest as anyone in liturgy made accessible for young children. I’m also interested in inculturation and aware that liturgical improvisation is not something to be reserved for professional conferences and third world nations.

Nevertheless, I still thought the Christmas eve mass I went to in Florida was a questionable accomodation. At the end of the mass, the priest called all the children forward for a blessing. They flocked forward — it was the 4:15 mass — but after the blessing, Santa emerged from the sacristy in full costume with booming voice. After a momentary surprise and some perfunctory applause by the adults present, the children lined up to receive wrapped nativity ornaments from his sainted hands.

My surprise, meanwhile, was not momentary. It persists to this moment, in fact.

I have no doubt that this ritual had its origin in a praiseworthy desire to get children more involved in the Christmas liturgies and to manifest the connection between the seemingly secular rites and legends of Christmas in the United States and the birth of Jesus. In fact, I do not intend to criticize this parish — which is trying, perhaps unsuccessfully, to do what many more parishes should be trying to do. Instead, I want to reflect on this incident to provide some principles for liturgical accessibility for young children.

  1. Use the beginning, not the end, of the liturgy. Young children have short attention spans. By the end of the liturgy, the youngest children are asleep, the oldest are bored, and the rest have forgotten what they’re doing here. Interesting children at the beginning of liturgy has less the sense of a “consolation prize” for those who (in the Roman church) cannot receive communion and is more likely to create real engagement in the liturgical action.
  2. Use body action. One thing the “Santa vigil” did right was to involve the children in movement away from their seats. Adults in our culture have been carefully trained, through years of schooling, to pay attention while they are still. Children do not have this ability. Processions and clapping call their attention to where the action is taking place.
  3. Be careful with cultural imports. Santa doesn’t visit our house, but my son still knows enough about the legend to know that Santa brings toys. “This isn’t a toy!” he complained, even though he’s fond of Christmas ornaments and nativities. It violated his expectations because the significance of Santa in our culture is connected to toys. In the St. Nicholas story, on the other hand, St. Nicholas brings a dowry for the poor girls. When we explained the church’s gift in reference to St. Nicholas, it made more sense to him.
  4. Emphasize the tradition’s strengths. Believe it or not, the Christian tradition is very child-friendly. You might say it’s been a matter of our survival. In the Christmas cycle there are many stories of interest to children; they can all identify with the Christ child, for instance. My son once walked into church, looked up at the crucifix, and said, “He’s all grown up now! Why?” Three-year-olds are interested in details, rituals, and the names for objects, so in every new church, he wants to identify the tabernacle and the altar. Emphasizing these aspects of the liturgy allows our family to interact together and answer his curiosity, helping him see how our Christianity is real to all of us.

Those were my thoughts on the Santa vigil mass. My son’s were simpler, but perhaps more profound. “That’s not the real Santa!” he exclaimed as he returned to the pew. “The real Santa’s not on life. He died a long time ago!”

What are your thoughts on liturgical accessibility for young children?


  1. Of course “the tradition” is child-friendly. What environment would engage a child more? A verbal-heavy ritual in a spare space or a ritual rich with action, physical objects like incense and glittery things, in an environment rich with art…etc…

    I take my kids to a monastic liturgy in a traditional church and they are angels. They are mesmerized.

    And you could be harsher on the idiocy of bringing out Santa. It would be okay.

  2. I have a two-year old, and mass continues to be a challenge. I worry that she is a distraction to those around her, and my wife and I disagree on whether she should even come with us. There really is no engaging her except sometimes she likes to sing alleluia or say amen with everyone else. She can identify Jesus on the crucifix, but that doesn’t hold her attention very long.

    One thing I hope to teach her as she gets older is that our main reason for being at church is to worship God (SC 33). What we get out of it is secondary but actually increases the more we remember the main reason we are there. I would be concerned that children will think that masses without a visit from St. Nick will be inferior because they didn’t receive anything. I bet the liturgical planner of the Santa Mass was thinking more in terms of reward for attending than consolation prize.

    In terms of the flow of the story in the Gospel this time of year, I find it jarring to have the nativity narrative one week, the finding in the temple the next, and then the adoration of the magi. Surely the pre-1969 order of having the feast of the Holy Family between Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord was preferable. It might make more sense for kids too.

  3. SC 7 cites the importance of sanctification for those who celebrate liturgy. I don’t think that principle is postponed for young children.

    Ms Belcher’s first point is well-taken. A candlelight procession at the beginning of Mass, possibly the blessing of a creche before the Gloria instead of after the Prayers of the Faithful (where the Book of Blessings places it).

    On the whole, parishes can encourage parents of youngsters to engage them in liturgy at home. The basics: grace before meals, prayers at bedtime, a signation before going to school or out to play. The seasonal: Advent wreath, Epiphany home blessing with chalking up the wall, baptismal anniversaries with the lit candle and garment/stole retrieved for stories if not memories.

    Young children are curious, and liturgy should inspire curiosity. When they are older the stories and traditions will stick.

    Oh, one last suggestion: bring very young children to church when liturgy is not taking place. Walking around they will notice things, and their curiosity can be easily satisfied by questions and answers without distracting others in the pews.

  4. I’m continually amazed by how much attention young children (say, 3-5 years old) pay to older children who are altar servers, gift bearers, and–if the choir is in a visible location–children’s choir members.

    One week when our parish children’s choir sang, there was a three-year-old in one of the front pews who was totally entranced anytime the choir did anything. When the choir stood to sing, he stood too. When the choir turned to face the ambo for the gospel, he turned to face the ambo too. During the distribution of Communion, he mimicked setting down a hymnal and putting out his hands.

    For children who are old enough to observe and imitate, directing their attention to other children who are participating in the liturgy can help to engage them more deeply.

  5. Mass isn’t entertainment. I have a younger sister and when she was very small it was a challenge keeping her quiet at Mass. My family, however, understands that we do not go to Mass for entertainment, but in order to worship God in the Mass. If we expect entertainment for our children it is only fair that we expect entertainment for adults. That is not what the Mass is for. Although it is difficult for children to keep their attention, I know of no child in my generation who was raised in the traditional liturgy who does not now respect the mystery and glory of a reverent Novus Ordo Mass.

    Rather than reaching to outside sources to bring “liturgical accessibility” we should embrace the liturgy for what it is. If we try and bring things to the Mass we will always come up short. The Mass was instituted by Christ and is the best example of worthy worship that we have on Earth.

    I agree with Jan, the environment of a traditional Mass (art, incense, music, mystery) is much more captivating than any passing entertainment we can provide.

  6. A double bind: what grinch would exclude Saint Nicholas from Christmas Eve Mass? But–in the minds of children–won’t his presence automatically out shine the liturgical significance of the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord?

    Introducing Santa at the end of the vigil liturgy runs the very real risk of thematizing the sending forth less in terms of “Jesus Christ is born among us!” and more in terms of “Santa Claus is coming tonight!”

    So we must ask, does the liturgical integration of Santa Claus mitigate and critique his late-capitalist status as marketer extraordinaire in a consumption driven economy or baptize it? Hopefully, the former if inculturation remembers its commission to function both contextually and counter-culturally. But, we cannot ignore the secular rites which define this character in popular consciousness: his cathedra is in the shopping mall and his antiphon is, “hello, N. ! What do you want…”

  7. In my opinion, we Catholics have developed a form of liturgical tunnel vision which makes us think that spiritual life can only be found within the context of Mass. That is why no-one cares for the communal celebration of the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours (though Vatican II was clear that this was to be fostered in every possible way), and so many centuries-old devotions and traditions have been discontinued.

    The ebb and flow of the Christian year, as perceived within the ‘ordinary’ confines of the home – this was what used to constitute a ‘spiritual matrix’ which Catholic children grew up in, learning the Faith little by little in fun and mesmerizing ways. Mr. Flowerday’s suggestions above are very pertinent. For Advent, get yourself an advent wreath. For the Feast of St. Barbara, bring cherry branches into the house to blossom around Christmas. For Christmas, set up a nativity scene. For Epiphany, have a priest come around to bless your house with holy water and write the initials of the three wise men on your doorposts with blessed chalk. For Candlemas, take part in the procession with candles and bring snowdrops into your home. Etc. Etc. See more seasonal customs here: Kids love this kind of thing.

    And why not set up a small family altar with a crucifix, some icons, candlesticks and an incense burner? Instead of being hypnotized by the telly, read one of the Scripture verses of the day with your kids, pray a decade of the Rosary and sing a song or two? If you have a garden, set aside a secluded area as a place for prayer and meditation – perhaps plant flowers that symbolize the Blessed Virgin?

  8. I wonder why Mike thinks that incense, art, mystery and music belong to a “traditional Mass”. They are not forbidden in the current rite! And there are indeed churches that make good use of all of the above — without recourse to the Tridentine Rite.

    My parish has deliberately eschewed the “cry room” — we baptize them, we welcome their presence in our assembly. It’s also one good measure of liturgy. If the kids are restless, there’s a message there.

    Liturgy is not entertainment, but it should not be about “endurance” either (insisting on sitting still by sheer force of will). It should instead engage all our senses, and then children will be quiet and still in wonder.

  9. Michelle…

    The opportunities to find a Mass (NO) at a traditionally appointed church with full liturgical ritual and Gregorian Chant are very near nil. I don’t think Mike believes that such aspects “belong” to a “traditional Mass” (do you mean EF Mass?) , and it is true they are not forbidden. But how often do you see a mass celebrated ad orientem? That isn’t forbidden either. When I attend Mass at the Traditional Parish in our town (an FSSP Chapel erected by our Bishop) I can be assured that the traditional aspects will be there. Because, not only are they “not forbidden”…they are in fact required there.

  10. Jeffrey, I think Prof. Belcher’s question had more to do with what might engage children in the liturgy and less to do with a debate about the merits of the ordinary form of the Eucharistic liturgy and its extraordinary form.

    My response to her question is a rich liturgical experience, which is certainly available in the ordinary form (I used “traditional Mass” in quotes as that is what Mike used, but yes, by that I do mean the extraordinary form) is engaging even to small children. When there is much to see, hear, smell…that’s where you can begin to bring them into the mysteries of the faith. It doesn’t have to be entertaining in the secular sense, but it does need to hit many of their senses, and it should be different from what they encounter in the “regular” world, and it should be reverent and finally, it should change subtly with the liturgical season.

    Just because the richness of the Church’s liturgical tradition is rarely plumbed by those communities celebrating the ordinary form does not mean that it cannot be. The chances are not, however, nil. I will attend Mass tomorrow where there will be an asperges, chant, Latin, and incense, in a sanctuary rich in liturgical art. I also know that there will be attention paid to inclusive language, and altar girls. Amazingly, such things can co-exist.

    Despite all the bells and smells of the extraordinary form, at some levels I find it liturgically impoverished. It was not widely available when my children were young, so I have no experience with bringing small children to it, but I wonder what their reaction might have been and whether they would have sensed that, or whether my reaction has more to do with what I know about the Church’s liturgical practice historically.

  11. Despite all the bells and smells of the extraordinary form, at some levels I find it liturgically impoverished.

    I would imagine that the Second Vatican Council would have agreed with you (though not using the term “impoverished”). Though that same Council mandated adherence to tradition (SC 4) and organic development (SC 23). This, I believe, is part of the impetus for the more “liberal” (heh) use of the extraordinary form of the Latin rite.

  12. Tony,

    I would agree that the availability of the extraordinary form is a positive development in terms of deeper and broader access to the treasures in the Church’s tradition. Where I find it particularly “impoverished” is in its lectionary, which proclaims so little of the Gospels (less than 1/4) compared to the current lectionary where 90% of the Gospels are read over the whole cycle. Though you can use the “new” lectionary with the EF.

    And again, getting back to the point of this post — kids are listening to the readings, and my kids found more stories better. I still remember my then 4 year old tugging on my shirt when the lector said “A Reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans” to whisper, “We were just in Rome.” and then to listen attentively to what followed, since he knows some Romans personally.

    1. My understanding is that you can use the translations found in the lectionary for mass if the text used in the extraordinary form has been translated in it. There’s still no years ABC in the extraordinary form.

      Say, does anyone know of any extraordinary form churches that use translations?

  13. “Jeffrey, I think Prof. Belcher’s question had more to do with what might engage children in the liturgy and less to do with a debate about the merits of the ordinary form of the Eucharistic liturgy and its extraordinary form.”

    Michelle… I was addressing your query as to why Mike thought that ” incense, art, mystery and music belong to a “traditional Mass”. My comment was directly in response to that: Because the “traditional Mass” is where those things are most often found. They CAN be found in the Ordinary Form liturgy, but they most often are not.

    My personal experience (I have 5 children…) is that the childen are far better behaved at EF liturgies, mostly because of the “atmosphere” of quietude and the abundance of ritual and symbol. As Todd noted above (and we very seldom agree!) these are the types of elements that could be incorporated in liturgies for children that would truly engage them rather than seek to entertain. He suggested a candle-light procession and blessing the creche at the outset of Mass. Both excellent incorporations of ceremonial at Mass. I would add incense (loved it as a child!!) …which can be used at any Mass, not just Christmas.

  14. Say, does anyone know of any extraordinary form churches that use translations?

    Ioannes…do you mean translations of the readings? First, every EF Mass I have been to proclaims the readings in English (well…at one location they were in Spanish, but still in the vernacular). They generally use the lectionary for the OF but follow the calendar and ordo for the EF. This causes problems sometimes because of the variations in the two calendars

    The 1991 guidelines from Ecclesia Dei also allows the use of the 3-year cyclical lectionary with the EF (believe it or not…) but with the caveat that this should “not be imposed” on congregations who may find it objectionable. I have yet to see this in practice…and I’m also not sure if it wasn’t abrogated by Summorum Pontificum and instructions in that document regarding the lectionary.

  15. Jeffrey — since I worship in a parish that celebrates the ordinary form and for example, has a procession and blessing of the creche for the children; uses incense regularly (not just at Christmas); and chant, and works hard to foster an attitude of quiet and reverence, (for example, when a homilist asked for 5 minutes of silence after the homily in a church full of children and families he got it), I have a hard time figuring out why I would seek out the extraordinary form. The added benefit of the ordinary form of course, is that it fosters a full and active particpation of the assembly in ways that the extraordinary form does not. My children have had all the liturgical richness and can understand the words (though by now my oldest is quite fluent in Latin and my youngest well on his way so either way they’d be fine), and are called within it to respond more fully. I am saddened that many abandon the ordinary form without trying to plumb the richness.

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