Life-sized, interactive advent calendar part of seasonal giving at southwest church

·4 min read

Woodcliff United Church in southwest Calgary is known for its life-size, interactive advent calendar during the holiday season. Usually, it's in the form of drawers containing gifts, or doors that can be opened.

This year, however, the committee had to get COVID-creative.

"Well, 2020 forced all of the pivoting in our church community — of course we can't meet in the sanctuary," said Sheri Bolitho, Woodcliff's faith formation minister, on the Calgary Eyeopener. "And it didn't make sense to us to have 100 or 200 people touching each drawer each day — we don't have enough sanitizing elves for that at all.

"So we've had to make it a lot different. So this year, we've created a calendar that allows for social distancing."

Bolitho said each of the stations or "days" is between six feet and 12 feet apart. The entire calendar is built as a labyrinth that runs across the front lawn of the property.

The first few days of December have already been unveiled. The rest of the days are all laid out by climbing rope, linked together in a maze.

"Each day has a sign and activity, and they're individually wrapped like gifts, though we have special, wonderful elves who come out early in the morning and unwrap gifts for you," Bolitho said.

 Sheri Bolitho
Sheri Bolitho

Bolitho said the long-running tradition started as a way to connect with the community outside the walls of the church.

"We just really wanted to be able to spread the meaning of Christmas to us, which is the four elements — faith, joy, hope and love — into the community," she said.

"And our church loves to be outside of the building. This is the perfect opportunity to let everyone know where we are and what Christmas is all about and the season of gifting and how we connect all of the wonderful things back to those elements."

The advent calendar is full of tactile elements, crafts, projects and things people can do with their hands. And it is always full of surprises.

Yesterday was a Christmas star, for example. The day before that was a heart craft made out of a hanger and yarn.

"We know people have a lot more time at home," Bolitho said. "They can take the activity and go home and make it as a family, and then they can maybe gift it, or they can use it as an ornament on their tree."

Bolitho said there are elements of the Christmas story to be found along the way, such as the star, symbolizing the star that the shepherds followed to the stable in Bethlehem.

But the calendar has many non-religious references as well.

"There's also a whole bunch of more secular elements, so there's the candy cane, and then there's the story of the candy cane, how it's really shaped like a shepherd's crook," Bolitho said.

Charity outreach

Since COVID hit, the church has been offering virtual services and online recordings of sermons.

Meanwhile, the church has an outreach committee that is focused on ways to give back to the community, and the advent calendar is always a big highlight. This year, the church is collecting for both the food bank and the Calgary Drop-In Centre.

The food bank collection week starts today and goes until Dec. 10, at which point the focus shifts over to the Drop-In Centre for the longest night of the year, Dec. 21. The church is collecting donations of mittens, hats, underwear and socks for the Drop-In Centre.

Mike Symington/CBC
Mike Symington/CBC

There are some crafts that Bolitho said she's particularly looking forward to on the advent calendar.

"I have a couple of wonderful ones. The first one is the word 'joy.' It's a beautiful paper craft," she said. "Our wonderful elves that made all of these have taken strips of coloured paper and rolled them up into the word 'joy' and it's gorgeous. You have to come see.

"And then another one of my favourites is the Santa gnome — he's a little Christmas ornament covered in yarn. And he's got a beautiful felt hat. He's wonderful."

Woodcliff United Church is located at 5010 Spruce Drive S.W. For more information go to Woodcliff United Church.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.