A Christmas party to remember for parents and children alike

By Jan Potts

Three days before Christmas, more than 150 children were given a wonderful gift: a whimsical, festive party where they could visit with Santa, dance to Christmas music, play with friends, and – of course – receive gifts. For many it was their first in-person party in three years. Their delight lit up the room.

“Our goal is to bring the love of Jesus to the children, to make Christmas a true celebration of love with tangible gifts to each of the little ones, the teens and their parents,” said Julio Escobar, coordinator of the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s restorative justice ministry.

The party took place in the large hall of the event center at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco. Huge holiday inflatable decorations, including a blow-up Nativity, and dancing snowflake lights on the ceiling set a playful mood as the children and their families arrived. For three hours, the children and their families were able to set aside their ordinary routines to celebrate Christmas and have fun.

Anyone would have had a wonderful time here, but it was especially joyous for these children, most of whose families had been touched by violence in some way, including in some cases the loss of a parent.

“Many parishes throughout the Archdiocese gave monetary support along with time and talent donated by a host of individuals.  Eventually, dozens of other volunteers and several organizations and individual donors joined to make the event a reality, providing gifts, lunch, decorations, photos, and many hours of time,” said Escobar. “I am overwhelmed with joy by the generosity of so many.”

Escobar conceived and organized the Christmas Angels party project. Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone set aside a grant from his Archbishop’s Circle for the event, which was supported by the Global Children Foundation, 100 toys donated from the Family Giving Tree through Comunidad San Dimas, and individual donations.

The common thread for the majority of attendees was parents who attend parenting classes led by Sonia Batres, a domestic violence and immigration services coordinator at a local nonprofit, and by Escobar. The classes were in person for 28 years until the pandemic forced them onto Zoom in 2020.

As families gathered at noon on Dec. 22, 2022, children began to approach Santa’s chair right away. The children were not reticent but ran right up to Santa to say hello, ask a few questions, and tell him what they were wishing for. Aside from the usual requests for dolls and skateboards, Santa was surprised by the wish of one older boy to attend Stanford; Santa extracted a promise that the boy would work hard at school to do his part to make that happen. Each family was given a professional photo of the visit with Santa to take home.

Children of all ages were also lined up at the face painting table, where they could choose from a variety of holiday images and colorful paints. After Santa, face painting, a pizza lunch and dancing with friends in the center of the large space, it was time for the raffle. Five desktop computers with external monitors, three laptop computers, and one Nintendo Switch were raffled off to adults who accompanied the children.

One of the winners of a laptop was very happy that the family would not have to share their single computer for homework or other online tasks. She had not expected to receive a gift herself, let alone a computer. She, like other parents, expressed gratitude for the event. One mother remarked that some of the youngest children are “COVID babies,” so young that they wouldn’t remember such events from before the pandemic. The opportunity to get together in person and the abundant space for children to play together were highlights for many.

After the raffle, the party came to a close with distribution of gifts to the children. When registering for the event, the person responsible for each child had selected a specific gift from a list of age-appropriate items, ranging from infant toys to wireless speakers. Some children returned to thank Santa and get one more photo with him and their present. As families left there were hugs and wishes for a happy Christmas and New Year, and many thanks for a wonderful party.

Reflecting on the event, Batres said, “You never know what the children will remember.” Years from now, many will remember the feeling they had this day, after so many years without parties. They will remember the excitement and fun they had, the volunteers dressed up as elves and a Nutcracker, Santa’s reassurances, and the Christmas Spirit that filled the room. Everyone involved hopes to be back again next year.

The Archdiocesan Restorative Justice Ministry advocates for peace and justice, and provides support to people affected by crime – victims and offenders – within our communities for healing through prayer, prevention, intervention, and guidance. For more information: sfarch.org/rjministry.