St. Nicholas, represented by John Callahan, a parishioner at St. Patrick’s, Erin Prairie, greets a toddler at the Viva St. Nicholas event Dec. 8 at Immaculate Conception Church in New Richmond. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Parishes across the diocese prepare for Christmas with events and celebrations, many of them focused on children’s formation in the true meaning of the holiday.

“Viva St. Nicholas” at Immaculate Conception in New Richmond has been part of the parish’s offerings since 2011. Both a social and formational event, a breakfast is held simultaneously to raise funds for youth participation in faith formation and ministry experiences.

“Ready the way,” the choir sang as a prelude before the Eucharistic celebration for the second Sunday of Advent.

“Ready the way,” Fr. John Anderson sang again to start his homily, inviting the congregation to join in.

The preparation-themed liturgy, celebrated at Immaculate Conception and every other church in the diocese and around the world, was setting the stage in preparation for the coming of Christ.

As the pastor noted how the music of the season “draws us in,” he invited Mass-goers to live the preparation period of Advent as a lead-in to putting faith in action. He acknowledged the Christmas story seems like a fairy tale, “but to us, it’s a promise.”

“Do we hope in God’s promise?” he asked, and challenged listeners to draw others in, to make hope visible.

At the end of Mass, children were invited to come forward and leave a shoe in front of the altar. They were then led to an encounter with the saint, where he recounts his story.

While many cultures draw historic connections with their versions of Santa Claus, the children are told of the life of the rich young Nicholas, who secretly left gold coins for a poor man’s daughters. The money was given as dowry for the young women to be married and to save them from a life of slavery. When the father found Nicholas out, he was asked to keep the benefactor’s identity hidden.

Nicholas’ life continued to be characterized by this generosity, especially for children, and the stories spread.

The man responsible for sharing the story with the parish’s children, John Callahan, has played St. Nicholas almost every year. It is something he looks forward to every year, he said, and the role brings great joy to his heart and safeguards him from becoming cynical about the season.
The event at Immaculate Conception was started to help keep the focus on the saint’s virtue in an increasingly secularized society.

Tory Matuszak was the first coordinator. It is now organized by Kristin Dittman, the parish’s formation coordinator for pre-kindergarten through fifth grades. In addition to offering the breakfast, the social outreach committee prepares something to hand out to each child, and St. Nicholas is available for pictures and conversation.