Advent Lessons from The Sound of Music, or a Few of Our Favorite Things…
In my past life, I was an active theatrical director and designer. For a few years, I taught theater at a wonderful private school in Texas. During this time I helped to establish a theater program for the school. One of the highlights of this program was the annual musical production, which brought together students of all ages to perform for the school and local community. One year, we put up a fantastic production of The Sound of Music. As a gift for directing this show, a parent gave me a first edition copy of The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, signed by Maria von Trapp. Still one of the coolest editions on my bookshelf. She also gave me a copy of Around the Year with the Trapp Family. When the Trapps came to America from Austria, they brought with them the custom of carrying into daily life the teachings, the beliefs, the feasts and observations of their faith. Life in their home was a continuous response to the cycle and rhythm of the Church year.
In one of my favorite passages from Around the Year with the Trapp Family, Maria tells the story of a family tradition known as “Christkindl” (Christ Child), during the season of Advent:
Mother appears with the bowl, which she passes around. Pieces of paper containing the names of the members of the family and are neatly rolled up, because the drawing has to be done in great secrecy. The person whose name one has drawn is now in one’s special care. From this day until Christmas, one has to do as many little favors for him or her as one can. One has to provide at least one surprise every single day — but without ever being found out. This creates a wonderful atmosphere of joyful suspense, kindness, and thoughtfulness. Perhaps you will find that somebody has made your bed or shined your shoes or has informed you, in a disguised handwriting on a holy card, that “a rosary has been said for you today” or a number of sacrifices have been offered up. This new relationship is called “Christkindl” (Christ Child) in the old country, where children believe that the Christmas tree and the gifts under it are brought down by the Christ Child himself.
The beautiful thing about this particular custom is that the relationship is a reciprocal one. The person whose name I have drawn and who is under my care becomes for me the helpless little Christ Child in the manger; and as I am performing these many little acts of love and consideration for someone in the family I am really doing them for the Infant of Bethlehem…At the same time I am the “Christkindl” also for the one I am caring for because I want to imitate the Holy Child and render all those little services in the same spirit as He did in that small house of Nazareth, when as a child He served His Mother and His foster father with a similar love and devotion…
It is a delightful custom, which creates much of the true Christmas spirit and ought to be spread far and wide.
I’ve read Maria’s words a number of times, but there are two things that strike me differently on this occasion, as I’ve become steeped in the Asset-Based Community Development approach that we use in our work.
One is reciprocity, the exchange of gifts… not out of a sense of obligation, but a sense of abundance!
There are many examples of this in our partnerships around the world, but the one that sticks out in my mind is from the Philippines. With help from us and the Episcopal Church in the Philippines, communities in the northern part of the country developed agricultural programs to boost nutrition and income. After Typhoon Yolanda, they opened their store-houses and sent healthy, organic food supplies south to those in need. As a result of this expression of outreach and solidarity, the people who had received the aid learned that they could also grow food and market products to help rebuild their livelihoods after the storm – and now they will be able to come to the aid of others.
The kindness of one group to another has sparked a chain of care and generosity that seems to be widespread in the Philippines, and has even touched us here in New York – two years ago, after Hurricane Sandy, the Church there sent a donation to help with our relief and recovery efforts. In the US as well as in the Philippines, we use an asset-based approach to disaster response and recovery, encouraging churches to think about and strengthen their year-round ministries, which can then be expanded to serve greater needs after a disaster. Rather than build a food pantry, we look for the church or community that is already doing that work, and then we come alongside to reinforce the work and to grow it.
The other thing from the Christkindl tradition that caught my attention this year is that each family member, from the smallest child up to his or her parents and grandparents, has something of value to contribute toward building the true Christmas spirit in their home.
When we work in new communities, the first thing we do is meet with people, ensuring that diverse voices are part of the conversation. Our most important job during this time is to listen – this helps us avoid making assumptions about how things work (based on how we would do things, or even how neighboring communities do things) and helps us learn how the community views their challenges and inherent strengths.
Asset-Based Community Development is about helping people to recognize those strengths and appreciate that the variety of collective assets – knowledge, time, material resources, connections, expertise – is what can enable the community to meet challenges and truly thrive. What we realize and hope to encourage in our participants is that a community’s greatest asset is the people who live there. Each person, even those who may seem disadvantaged or marginalized, is a strength to that larger communal family.
To me, cherishing the beauty and value of the people around us is the greatest gift of Christmas. Healing a hurting world is not a Herculean feat, it is a simple task taken up each day, by each hand working for the common good, inspiring the miraculous!
Maria von Trapp understood everyday miracles. After her family fled the German occupation, they struggled to make ends meet. Looking inward, they saw they had an asset that could be shared: their music. By sharing their gifts with the world, and sharing simple acts of daily blessing with each other, they thrived as a family and within their community.
The spirit of Cristkindl – to me, of all hands showing kindness and strengthening one another – can be lived year-round, but is especially significant during Advent. I certainly think this is an attitude the Christ Child could get behind, and for me… one of my favorite things.
Watch: My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music
Images: Top and Middle 1, Photos of the original Von Trapp family. Middle 2, Community members in the Philippines working together. Middle 3, Program Officer Sara Delaney enjoying the hospitality of a community in the Philippines. Middle 4, Program Officers Vanessa Pizer and Nagulan Nesiah enjoying the company of a community in China. Last, President Rob Radtke in celebration mode with a community in Kenya.
Healing the world starts with your story!
During the 75th Anniversary Celebration, we are sharing 75 stories over 75 weeks – illustrating how lives are transformed through the shared abundance of our partners and friends like you! We invite you to join us in inspiring our vibrant community by sharing your own story!