This past December five people went from Northern Europe (four from the Netherlands and one from Luxemburg) to help with the “Saint Nicholas” project that our sisters organize in Ukraine. For seventeen years, the sisters have been helping poor families to provide gifts for their children on the most important gift giving feast of the year. Because the Byzantine rite follows the Julian calendar, the feast of St. Nicholas comes two weeks later than in the Roman rite. A helpful detail considering the importance of “Sinterklaas” in the Netherlands!
We arrived and the majority of the preparatory work had already been done. Sisters from the Novitiate had been going for weeks to different shops and individuals to ask them to sponsor children and provide the gifts their families could not. They handed out the letters the children had written to the Saint asking for their hearts’ desires. The requests ranged from footballs to a bunny rabbit to one little boy who asked for everything to have butterflies on it! One little girl asked the Saint to bring peace for war-torn Ukraine. Another little girl asked for perfume for her mother and a toy for her little sister but nothing for herself. The letters from the children already expressed the special innocence that was visible in these children who have not yet been so affected by the materialism that reigns in the West.
The first full day in Ivano-Frankivsk, we went to the shops to pick up the packages that had already been requested. Shop after shop gave parcel after parcel to fulfill the desires of these kids. One of the women who donated to the project had as a child been a recipient of the generosity of others. She was overjoyed to be able to provide for children whose situation she could personally understand. Another shop owner had been approached the year before by the sisters and had been skeptical of the authenticity of the request asking, “Is this really for children?” The sisters invited him to accompany them on the delivery night, and he was convinced. This past December when the sisters arrived to ask again he received them with coffee and cookies asking how many children he could help with. The superior of the Novitiate said that this year most of the children received everything on their lists…It is more blessed to give than receive…
A van from the Novitiate went around the city to meet the different teams who were collecting the packages. While my group was waiting on the corner for the van to arrive, each one of us with hands full with packages, a teenage girl came up to the Ukrainian sister waiting with us and asked, “Is this for children?” When she received an affirmative answer, she handed the sister money for the project. It is more blessed to give than to receive…
The second full day in the city, I went with two of the other volunteers who had come from the Netherlands to buy the gifts of the children whom we as a group had adopted. Many people had donated money for that purpose, and it was a joy to see with what care Thea and Joost, the two volunteers with me, attentively searched for what the kids might like based on the information we had received about each child and the knowledge that the sisters accompanying us had of them. There were ten kids on our list with different stories and situations, but they all needed a winter jacket and boots. We began searching for the right sizes and colors. With the help of the Ukrainian sisters, each coat purchased had the fake fur collar that helps with warmth and probably makes the coat more special for them.
The other two volunteers stayed behind the same day to wrap gifts that had already arrived at the convent. Thanks to the attention of Thea and the donations of the people from the Netherlands, we were able to bring beautiful wrapping paper to make the packages much more exciting to open. In other years everything was put into a rubbish sack and delivered to the children. Even though the wrapping paper did not last longer than the rubbish sacks of the years before, it made the gifts much more special looking. All of the gifts were placed in cardboard boxes to be wrapped in the pretty paper and encircled with ribbons. By the Providence of God, one of the kinds of paper that Thea had chosen had butterflies on it! Even that detail could be provided for the butterfly-lover!
On Sunday, day of rest, we did not shop and only wrapped a little in the afternoon. In the morning we went to the local parish where our priests work and where Joost was asked to play St. Nicholas! After the Mass for children, which was packed, (There were so many people that there was standing room only and the cold Ukrainian December was no longer felt because of the warmth of so many people so close together!), the children were invited to sing the traditional songs calling on St. Nicholas. In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is also welcomed with songs, and it was lovely to see the connection with the culture where many of the volunteers live. Even more lovely to see was the visible connection with the saint of the Church. After singing, St. Nicholas entered waving his hand and raising his staff in greeting. The children were thrilled and did not mind that the Saint spoke English instead of Ukrainian! It is very special how children explain discrepancies to themselves.
Monday and Tuesday were spent in packing frenzies…boxes were scarce and the whole day people arrived with more and more gifts. On one of the last days a young man, friend of the community, called asking if there was still something needed for the children. The sister jokingly answered, “Ten crates of mandarin oranges!” thinking that he would never bring it. (In addition to the present it is typical that each child receive a generous bag of sweets and mandarins.) Later the same day, he arrived…with 10 crates of mandarins! It is better to give than to receive….
There was confusion and tape and paper, good spirit and chocolates and few boxes…I went several times to the ground floor refectory to see how the preparations of the sweeties bags were going. It often looked like a scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The other sister who went with me from the Netherlands tied bags with mandarins and chocolates with a ribbon for about two days straight. Because of her position in the refectory, she saw firsthand the stream of people coming all day with packages for the children. The door almost did not close at one point because of the constant flow of benefactors who came to deliver their contributions for the kids. It is better to give than to receive…
Some of the volunteers remarked on several occasions how this sort of project would be impossible in Northern Europe because, “We have it too good…” The wealth that comes with material success often makes hearts colder for the needs of others. The little that we could see from Ukraine allowed us to notice economic differences with the countries where we live and to appreciate the sacrifice that this project was for many people. It was a beautiful testimony of the natural generosity of the Ukrainian people. I think it was also a beautiful testimony of the beauty of children—how easy it is to want to help them. Jesus is in the poor and the small—the innocence of children allows us to see something of the beauty and innocence of the Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world by giving the greatest gift ever—His Body and Blood on the Cross. During this trip which happened right before the Latin Rite Christmas, it was good to mediate on the gift of Christ given to us through His poor and humble birth, ultimately in view of His Death on the Cross, as we prepared the gifts for poor and humble children.
Tuesday night, December 18, arrived and we were mostly ready to bring the parcels. Many people offered to come as drivers so that the sisters could break up in teams and deliver the presents to about 300 children, the largest number the project has ever helped. It snowed for several days before and the roads were icy, making the start a little later as we waited for the drivers to arrive. We packed into the chapel of the Novitiate, received some instructions from M. Cristiana, the superior of the house, sang to St. Nicholas and left. And then the packages started to move!
Each team of novices had carefully separated the parcels for their children. The multi-colored packages went outside in a matter of minutes with all of the hands helping, the cars were loaded and the drivers began to carefully travel to the different addresses. One of the drivers was a man who had sponsored 18 children. He had grown up poor and through fortuitous circumstances such as belonging to sports clubs had avoided negative influences and had become very successful. His children asked to go along to deliver the packages with him because they preferred to give to other children instead of receiving something for themselves. It is better to give than to receive…
Thea, Joost and I had the opportunity to deliver among other packages to the ten children our group had adopted. The situations of the kids were incredibly different…one boy lived with his mother and immediately began to use the football and the football gloves we had bought. Another boy had been taken from the mother because of her alcohol use. She was waiting for an answer from Children’s services about whether or not he could return home. We left the package with her because she went every day to see her son. One thirteen-year-old girl lived with her elderly grandparents in a tiny flat, really a tiny room. Her grandfather cannot walk anymore and the poverty of their home was palpable. She opened her gifts with great care and shyly thanked those who had brought them. Her grandmother thanked the Ukrainian sisters who gave the thanks to St. Nicholas. The grandmother looked at them and repeated her thanksgiving to the sisters.
We visited house and families the whole night and early into the morning. We got stuck a few times in the ice and snow and had to push the van to continue going. It was a great adventure! We had the privilege of bringing the bunny rabbit to the little girl who had asked for it, and the privilege of seeing her carry the cage with great care to her bedroom, because that is where the bunny would sleep!
One of the most moving situations for me, was Angela, a nine-year-old girl from our list. She lived in an ex-communist student flat with her mother. They had one long, narrow room for the two of them and shared a toilet and kitchen with seven other flats. Their room when we arrived was incredibly crowded (not messy, just too small for the things that they had), and Angela was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Saint’s gifts. She had asked for four things: a winter jacket, winter boots, a scarf (in the end she got a set with matching gloves and hat), and an Uno game. Before she could open the package, her mother made her sing a song to St. Nicholas, which she did with all her heart (and lungs!). Afterwards she had to play a song for him on the little electric keyboard balanced on the bags of clothes in the room. When the time came to open the package, she pulled the items out in the order listed and with each item screamed with her whole little being, “Thank you!” When she arrived at the Uno game, she said something that we could not understand. The Ukrainian sisters translated for us: she would bring the game to school to share with the other kids. Even in receiving, she knew how to give. It impressed me so much to see such gratitude in someone so little about such ordinary and necessary things. In living with so little, she knew how to appreciate the love behind the things given and to share her joy with those close to her.
Our other group of volunteers shared that in one house they arrived at, the woman thanked them for the gifts for her daughters and asked if the group had brought some for the neighbor children. The group did not know there were other children in the building and said no. The woman brought the bags of sweeties that her children had received to the neighbor, saying: “My children already have something.” It is more blessed to give than to receive…The sisters promised in the coming days to bring some gifts for the other children.
Really there are many other stories that could be shared, it was such a beautiful time. You could almost say magical, and I mean that not in the sense of witches and spells, but in the magic that exists in innocence, when love is the rule of life and everything is possible and good reigns. I will end with one last story to summarize the magic of the trip and God’s great delicacies. The day that three of us returned to the Netherlands, we took a train to Lviv and from the train station needed to take a bus or taxi to the airport. A man who uses his personal car as a taxi approached us, and I wondered a bit suspiciously, I admit, if he would give an honest price. The Ukrainian sister accompanying us seemed satisfied with what he said and agreed that the four of us would go in his car to the airport. He asked why we had been in Ukraine and the sister explained our volunteer trip. When we arrived at the airport, the sister tried to pay him for the trip and he denied the money. He said that he could not take money from people who had come to help children and asked for our prayers for him. We agreed and asked his name, in order to pray for him and his family. His name is Nicholas!
Sr. Maria Nadiya Beznadiynych, SSVM
Missionary in The Hague, Netherlands