Creating Christmas Memories

Donors help build a legacy for children to take with them through life.

Each year at Christmas, Mary and Joseph visit Boys Ranch.

Any other time of the year, they might be Boys Ranch students, but for the annual Boys Ranch Christmas Cantata, a boy and a girl make a pilgrimage to Bethlehem that takes them through the Boys Ranch chapel to the birth of Jesus. The presentation includes songs and Scriptures.

The annual Christmas service is among many Christmas traditions that children can take with them through life, thanks to donors who support Boys Ranch.

The cantata has become meaningful, said Senior Chaplain Mike Wilhelm, with nostalgia attached.

“Some of our kids come from backgrounds that are pretty starved of tradition and nostalgia,” Wilhelm said. “The four-week Advent countdown to Christmas is bathed in Scripture as a good way to contextualize the birth of the baby Jesus.”

Each year, some elements of the cantata are new, but the birth of Jesus is always part of the service, including Mary and Joseph dressed in traditional costumes.

“We make sure the presentation at cantata is multisensory with a lot of sights and sounds and textures and smells,” Wilhelm said. “We close with a candlelight service so hopefully they have a meaningful memory that sticks.”

Nightime view of chapel at boys Ranch

The experience of being a part of cantata is new for many of the children who participate, said Ray Martinez, the director of Christian music, who creates each year’s cantata prayerfully.

“God is so faithful. Every year, the right number of kiddos sign up with the right talent,” Martinez said. “We have never turned a kiddo away who has signed up.”

Many of the children become sound and lighting technicians.

“It’s always a special night – just the accomplishment of rehearsing and everything leading up to the cantata,” Martinez said. “The pats on the back – they work week after week, and here it is.”

Creating Christmas Traditions

“I love Christmas so much,” said Michelle Maikoetter, chief program officer. “We have a big Christmas tree and lights for the entrance so we can create the sense that you would get driving through any small town.”

The idea is to create Christmas traditions for children from less fortunate circumstances while helping them celebrate the season.

“For a lot of people, our kids included, holidays can be overwhelming, especially if there’s scarcity in the home,” Maikoetter said. “Some of our kids haven’t gone to a Christmas service, or they haven’t had gifts to open. We want them to have a relationally rich Christmas experience.”

Each year, Santa Claus visits the dining hall, and houseparents create specialty treats such as fudge in the days leading up to the holiday.

Every child at Boys Ranch receives a gift that the child has requested, Maikoetter said, during a family-style Christmas party at each home. None of that would be possible without donors who care.

“The holidays are when the houseparents shine the most,” Maikoetter said, “They do really special things for the children.”

Houseparents Leah and Roger Thorn revel in the holiday. They spend time throughout the year thinking of ways to make Christmas special for the boys of Carter Home. The Thorns start decorating the home in early October, both inside and out. By the time they’re done, the home’s lights can be seen as far as eight miles away. For the final touch, the Thorns add about 50 blowup decorations, creating a little path so viewers can stroll through the holiday wonderland. The boys help with all of it.

“We make cookies and play Christmas music,” Mrs. Thorn said. “We make it an event.” 

All year long, the Thorns set aside small amounts from the clothing budget to get pajamas for the boys in addition to their big gifts funded by Boys Ranch donors. Often, the boys pull the pajamas right over whatever clothing they’re wearing, strutting around the home in the new clothes.

 

“One year, we bought bathrobes that weren’t anything special,” Mr. Thorn said. “They were cheap robes, and you would have thought we had given them a gold mine.”

From start to finish, with games, gifts and glorious food treats, the Christmas party at Carter Home could take as long as two hours.

The Thorns purchase small gifts that become the prizes in a swap game.

“We have a game with dice rolls to get a gift, dice rolls to pass a gift, dice rolls to steal a gift,” Mr. Thorn said. “You never know what the boys will like. One year, the coveted gift was a set of twin bedsheets with Minecraft on them. We got a yard of Snickers bars one year, and that was the thing everybody had to have.”

It’s an evening of laughter with a lot of love unspoken.

“We want the kids to feel special,” Mrs. Thorn said. “We want them to feel loved. We want them to feel like they’re worth something.”

The Thorns have been houseparents for 19 years. One of their personal traditions is to take their boys and their daughter, Grace, to Amarillo to look at lights and enjoy hot chocolate.

“The boys complain about it, until we get to town, when they start enjoying it,” Mrs. Thorn said. “Five or 10 years down the road, I’ll get a text that says, ‘Guess what I’m doing tonight. I’m taking my wife and kids, and we’re going to get hot chocolate and go look at Christmas lights. I’m starting that tradition with my family.’”

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This article originally appeared in The Roundup, the Boys Ranch newsletter. To sign up for the free newsletter, click here.

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