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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?