By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

Lions, tigers and bears. No, it wasn’t the Wizard of Oz because there was a ringmaster, a whole company of clowns, seemingly hundreds of singers and musicians, Santa Claus and Cardinal Justin Rigali.

This was the 53rd annual Cardinal’s Christmas Party for Children held Dec. 16 at the Sheraton Philadelphia City Center Hotel, with more than 400 children from community and residential agencies served by archdiocesan Catholic Social Services as the honored guests.

This year’s party was different, it had a circus theme.

“We looked to find something childlike, something they could enjoy,” said Deacon John Hunter, executive director of the archdiocesan Office for Development and the master of ceremonies for the party. “We wanted to make sure it was all focused on the children and them having a good time. For many of them this is the only Christmas they will have.”

All of the entertainers and most of the workers were drawn from the Catholic high schools. Deacon Hunter said, “Our biggest problem is that each year more and more want to volunteer. It’s such a special, special day.”

Cardinal Rigali, in his remarks to the children, reminded them of the reason Christmas is such a special time.

“You know, actually what we are celebrating this afternoon is first and foremost the birthday of Jesus Christ. Jesus came into the world as a child,” he said.

The Cardinal’s remarks were underscored by the traditional presentation of a tableau of the first Christmas.

Carly Bello, a junior at Kennedy-Kenrick High School, represented the Blessed Virgin.

“My teacher asked me if I wanted to do Mary and I was excited because every other time I was in a Nativity scene I was a sheep,” she said. “I’m honored and feel very blessed. I guess you can say it’s a promotion.”

Alexis Walsh, a senior, was one of the many Bishop Shanahan High students in full clown regalia.

“I never played a clown before, but there is a first time for everything,” she said. “It was easy. This is the best thing ever.”

Of course, the real highlight of the afternoon, especially for the little ones, was the promised appearance of Santa Claus.

“Santa Claus flies around with Rudolph and gives people presents,” said Deborah, a second grader. “He gets cookies and milk and then he goes to other people’s houses.”

Sonia got a Bratz doll set. James got Turbo Wheels. Johnny got a basketball. Carol got a doll. All were satisfied.

“It’s a great experience for them,” said Msgr. Francis J. Depman, who brought a large group of kids from Misión Santa María, Madre de Dios in West Grove. “The teachers say for the next couple of days after this all the children talk about is the party, the music and the gifts they receive. It’s one of their best experiences.”

Other groups of children were from Beacon Programs at Nativity B.V.M., Mater Dolorosa, Holy Innocents and St. Cyprian; Bucks County, Chester County and Delaware County Family Service Centers; Visitation Homes; Casa del Carmen Day Care; St. Edmond’s Home for Children; St. Francis-St. Joseph Homes for Children; spanine Providence Village; Don Guanella Village; and Brother Rousseau Academy, the archdiocesan Office for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees and CSS Child Care Department.

This was Jacqueline Delaney’s first year as chairperson for the annual event, and it was, she said, “a wonderful experience. It’s so great to look at the children’s faces and see how happy they are.”

In addition to utilizing volunteers from 15 of the archdiocesan high schools, the Cardinal’s Christmas Party for Children depends on the donations of many people of good will.

Among them was Father Sean P. Bransfield, a judge in the archdiocesan Metropolitan Tribunal and an assistant to Cardinal Justin Rigali. An ardent Philadelphia Phillies baseball fan, he donated the $100 he won on a friendly wager on the World Series game.

“Santa Claus came in October, so I’m going to help Santa Claus for December,” he said.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.