Friday December 9, 2016

The Greatest Gift

By Eric Spina

If truth be told, as I drove from a downtown meeting to campus, I felt as if were 10 years old again and heading down the stairs to see what was under the Christmas tree. I had tremendous anticipation for what this evening would bring.

As if on cue, the snow began to fall gently as more than 1,000 University of Dayton students shepherded excited Dayton schoolchildren around the steps of the Humanities Center plaza for the illumination of a giant donated Christmas tree.

Wise men and shepherds, not dressed quite warmly enough for the 20-degree night, took their spots for their entry into the live Nativity.

“Are you Joseph?” I guessed. “No, I’m a shepherd,” said one long-haired student. Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and Idina Menzel and Michael Bublé’s timely “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” played over the loudspeakers.

As he’s done for 20 years, English Professor Jim Farrelly read the story of the Nativity in a gentle voice filled with warmth.

“A long time ago, before there were brightly wrapped presents, reindeer, Christmas trees and colored lights, there was a child. He was born to simple parents in a humble manger. But this was no ordinary child; this child would change the world with his message of hope and forgiveness,” said Farrelly, reciting from a script his son, Mark, adapted from St. Luke’s gospel.

After he finished the story of Christ’s miraculous birth, the crowd, in unison, shouted the countdown for the lighting of the tree. They burst into applause when the tree lights twinkled before hurrying off to enjoy hot chocolate, “snowman soup,” games and coloring. The children ripped open festive packages filled with Barbie dolls, drum sets, games, even a toy bow and arrow. There were practically more broad smiles than there were people.

My heart burst with joy at this wondrous sight.

I had heard about Christmas on Campus for the last year, but to experience it is to truly know why this time-honored tradition, now in its 53rd year, holds such magic, wonder and deep meaning. Just think of the tens of thousands of people who have been touched by this enchanting night on campus — as well as in alumni communities across the nation as our graduates bring the same spirit of service and faith to their cities. This is perhaps the greatest gift we can ever give —  ourselves in selfless love to others. (See last night's video).

I am deeply grateful for Paige Koenig and Peter Wallace, the student co-coordinators of Christmas on Campus, as well as all the volunteers on the organizing committee. They hustled around all evening, wearing headphones and offering a helping hand. More than 1,000 students served as buddies to children, and nearly 50 student organizations got in the act, too, by decorating campus and creating fun activities, including a train display, cardboard maze and obstacle course. It’s a massive effort to pull off a winter wonderland of this proportion, yet these students freely volunteer their time during the most stressful time of the semester.

As the children boarded buses to return home, the evening ended as it traditionally does, with a beautiful Mass celebrating the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Faith. Service. Community. Every thing about this night speaks of our deeply treasured Marianist values.

This year’s Christmas on Campus theme, “Where All Roads Lead Home,” fittingly described the spirit. We want everyone to find a home on this campus. For one magical night, our students shared their home with children from the Dayton community.

What I found "under the tree" last night is a gift I will always cherish.

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