A Johnny Whitaker Advent

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johnny whitakerAs our visiting associate pastor gave his homily on the first Sunday of Advent, I winked at my husband and whispered, “Wait. Did he read my blog?”

He reminded us that we have to renew our commitment to the season. That it shouldn’t just be the same old thing – unless that same old thing helps you prepare the way.

I don’t work that way. As much as I love tradition, I’m always looking for a little fuel to keep the lamps trimmed and burning, not just for me, but for our family.

Having recently completed a stewardship campaign with the children of our parish, my heart is still very much focused on our gifts: recognizing what we have received, and what in turn we give back to and in the name of the Lord.

That’s when Johnny Whitaker entered my mind.

Herman Munster welcomes Jody to Heaven just before they board the chariot bathtub to the shop of halos.

Herman Munster welcomes Jody to Heaven just before they board the chariot bathtub to the little shop of halos.

I loved the 1969 movie version of the story The Littlest Angel starring Jody (aka Johnny Whitaker) and Herman Munster (aka Fred Gwyne.). Okay, maybe I just loved Johnny Whitaker. But heck, Cab Calloway and Tony Randall are in it, too, and a crew of other celebs I couldn’t name when I was a tot.

So an endearing memory of 117 minutes of the worst green screen ever used in the made-for-TV movie of a theologically flawed but sweet tale has become our seasonal inspiration for our Simple Gifts (aka The Littlest Advent) activity.

fivehalos littlest angel

It’s already proven to be a big hit with the kids as they eagerly ask for our Littlest Advent time each evening.

I used a plain balsa wood box from Michael’s ($5) to create a simple treasure box. An old shoe box would do. Whatever works. I wanted to keep ours, so I invested a little in the box.

I bought three packages of colored craft sticks (enough to make it through the season and still fit in the box). (I bought 375 sticks, it came to $7 with a coupon.) You could use colored paper strips, too. (I chose colors to represent precious gems.)

We sprayed the box gold using a can of model paint we had on hand – to represent treasure. But we still kept it simple (fighting my temptation to glitz it up). My husband cut a slit in the top of the box so the kids could easily slip in the sticks. I put the sticks in a little basket next to the box, with color-coded examples.

fivehalos littlest angel-2

This is how I presented it to the kids … we talked about how Advent is a time for preparing for Christmas. As we eagerly await the celebration of Jesus’ birth and plan our gift giving to our family and friends, what simple gifts can we give to the Baby Jesus on Christmas? We had a discussion about God being the giver of all things and about us giving back to him from our hearts.

Then we talked about how we may offer our simple gifts to God through:

  • Prayer – whether praying privately or with others in mass or at reconcilliation
  • Glory – praising God (such as in song or at mass) or sharing his goodness and good news with others
  • Thanks – remembering to be thankful for what we have, thanking God, and thanking people who care for us
  • Help – offering our service to our parents without complaint, helping our friends when they are need, giving to the poor and lonely, sharing our gifts at church, etc.

Practical note: For us, each word had to start with different letters so the little ones would be able to recognize the words by its starting sound. (And they go to Montessori school, so we use cursive.)

Each evening, we say some appropriate Advent prayers as a family and then tell each other the “simple gifts” we’ve offered during the day. The children come to me, and I give them a stick corresponding with the gift. The little ones eagerly put them in the box. Our 15-year-old participates, too, appreciating how excited her siblings are over the process.

fivehalos littlest angel-3

You can see from the contents that the box is heavy on prayer. Which is great – but I’ve had to take to rationing those sticks to one for the each kids’ daily private prayer, one for community prayer, etc. Otherwise I’m hearing, “I prayed for the priestesses.” (That’s how Lillian says prays for all the priests.) I give her a stick, and she comes right back with, “And I prayed no one ever dies. And that people don’t get sick. And that people have peanut butter …” Expecting a stick with each one. I think I do a good job not morphing into a Stick Nazi with a harsh “No stick for YOU!” and instead just listen and send her on her on her merry way to think about the other categories.

Every day, I give Cliff a stick after he tells me he prays for our pastor with: “I prayed for Meaner Mike.” (That’s monsignor to you and me.) And “The Headless Horseman.” We went here, and the impact has apparently been profound. He wants God to help that guy to find his head.

It’s been a great opportunity to teach both little ones to better contemplate their petitions, because in addition to Meaner and the headless dude, Cliff’s added to his prayers children from school, grandparents and other family members and friends. Lillian’s prayer seems to have a broadened focus on death and dying for some reason, but her concerns are sincere.

This weekend, we will watch that gooey 1969 version of the story. (I know, I know: Judge me.) I bought the DVD for a whopping $4 online. I can distinctly remember being a kid and handing my mom the TV guide asking her to find when it was scheduled in the weeks leading to Christmas. i remember one year being perplexed and jdisappointed when she couldn’t find it. I wonder how many years it was actually played on network TV. It didn’t seem to have the staying-power some other Christmas specials enjoy. Two reasons: 1) no Santa, and 2) if you watch even some of it on YouTube, you can easily see why. Cutting-edge special effects it has not.

I am aware there is a newer cartoon version of the story, but I can tell by the images that it features a Precious-Moments-eque cartooning style that doesn’t meet my aesthetic. I’d much rather see Felix Unger singing while suspended in front of a groovy swirling tie-dye backdrop than big-headed soulless ink-eyed cartoons talking all cartoony.

A few days before Christmas, if we’re adventurous, we’ll work our way through the picture book of the story. We’ve read it a handful of times over the years. I find the text rather cumbersome to keep a three-year-old (and my husband — who does the reading) engaged. I love the story, not so much the language of the story.

On Christmas Eve, we’ll have the kids put the box by our small crèche. I would like to replace the contents with something meaningful – maybe related to guardian angels or similar – but I’m not quite sure what yet.

Of course, as Catholics, there’s a little bit of undoing that needs to be done surrounding this sweet story (just like It’s a Wonderful Life).

We are taught that when people die, they become saints in heaven, not angels. Angels are and always have been pure spirit. There’s a nice blog post on teaching kids about angels by Kate Daneluk at Catholicmom.com. It’s not a new subject in this house, but one that’s always worth a little sensitive Catechesis. I say sensitive, because many are not well-informed in this teaching. The last thing I want is one of my kids to go to battle to correct a friend that dearly departed Aunt Tilly “ain’t no angel.” Instead, I want them to gently share the teaching about God (hopefully) welcoming her as a saint to share in the eternal banquet.

For me, neither the very loud theological hiccup nor the complete syrupy nature of the diminish the ultimate message of the tale and of our Simple Gifts activity: The best gifts are those that come from the heart – whatever they may be. After all, our hearts are a dwelling place for Christ. And a syrupy movie’s got nothing on the sweet purity of a little heart filled with the love of Jesus.

As we ready our match sticks for the rose candle and turn the calendar to the half-way mark of Advent, I like this little angel-infused lamp oil. It’s added just the right amount of new and renew for a fruitful season.

We're also still using our treasured Advent candles from a few years ago.

We’re also still using our treasured Advent candles from a few years ago.