Catholic Activity: Home Altar for Preschool Children
Every home should have an altar by the time the child is three years old. This should be something the child can help maintain. Here are some suggestions in setting up an altar, and some ideas for various months.
Every home should have an altar by the time the child is three years old. A grocery box, low enough for wee tots, may be used.
Let the little one take care of it, with the help of the mother, or of an older child. Have on it a little statue of the Blessed Mother and two vases or glasses for flowers. The value of such a little shrine is nowadays often overlooked. In some homes a niche can be found and used for this purpose. In a very handsome apartment in New York City's fashionable East Side, one of our mothers recently was pleasantly surprised to see a niche containing a lovely statue of our Blessed Lady and before it a votive lamp burning. The daughter of the home, a young college girl, attended to the lamp, kept the wicks fresh, etc.
The effect of an altar in the home is beautifully described in a book, The Education of Catholic Girls, by Mother Janet Erskine Stuart, who says:
An altar or a nursery shrine . . . gives a tone of joy and heavenliness that go down into the soul and take root there to grow into something lasting and beautiful. There are flowers to be brought, and lights, and small processions, and evening recollection with quietness of devotion, with the realization of the 'great cloud of witnesses' who are around to make play safe and holy, and there is through it all the gracious call to things higher, to be strong, to be unselfish, to be self-controlled, to be worthy of these protectors and friends in heaven.
Mother Stuart's mention of the "cloud of witnesses" reminds us that at an early age the child should be told about the angels and saints that are with us in spirit when we pray.
April If a nice picture of the Resurrection has been hung above the altar, the children will love to place flowers around it, as they have seen the flowers in church at the repository.
May On the altar in the house, have a small vase before the statue of our Lady. Let the child have charge of it, changing the water each day and putting in one fresh flower as often as possible. Let him say a few lines of the Hail Mary as he arranges the flower.
If the child is old enough, you should, of course, let him take down the statue every day or so, hold it in his hand, tidy the altar and arrange it as prettily as he can. If the child is a girl, it will please her to wear a blue bow for the month of May. If a boy, a little medal of our Lady, or a small blue bow on the lapel of his suit, will help him to be aware that this is a very special month devoted to the mother of the Baby Jesus.
Parents and any child old enough should say the Rosary, or at least one decade, before the Lady altar. Start this on May 1st; and make the day a big day. Have ice cream or cake. Do something to celebrate our own dear Blessed Lady's May Day.
June Replace the picture of our Lady on the altar by a picture of our Lord alone. Let the child bring Him a flower if you can. Add a little red decoration, perhaps a red cloth to hang across the front of the altar. Children of four or five can cut out paper flowers to bring to Jesus.
August We all are happy on this day of the Assumption which celebrates the reward that was given to our Blessed Mother for her perfect life. As we think of her entrance into Heaven, we want to rejoice with her. How shall we let the little ones have an extra happy day in her honor?
(1) Say a little prayer to Blessed Lady as you call the child in the morning.
(2) Bring out the blue ribbons and bows.
(3) Let the little one decorate the altar. It should be easy to gather flowers in August. Perhaps you can have a daisy chain.
September On September 8th, the altar should be especially decorated for our Lady. Flowers, natural or made by the children, should be brought to her. Let them sing a hymn if possible. And remember blue hair ribbons or a blue dress for tiny girls and a blue armband for boy knights of our Lady. We always give birthday presents and what shall we give to our Blessed Mother? Some acts of love.
October We consider "the cloud of witnesses" which Mother Mary Stuart mentions as being present when we pray. Some of these witnesses are angels, invisible beings who are here ready to guard and guide us. Little children invariably love their Guardian Angels. The tiny child made aware of a protecting companion feels happy and secure at his play.
All month stress the care angels take of us. Say often the prayer that children love:
Tell the children that it is because God loves them so much that He sends an Angel to watch over them. Talking about the Guardian Angel a little every day, and of his presence, leads naturally to telling how God Himself is always here.
With three such feasts as these, there is plenty for little hands to do to impress upon little minds the ever-watchful care of God through His Angels and Our Lady of the Rosary. The place of honor on the altar should be given to our Lady's statue or picture, and for this month the child may hang a rosary round it. Angels, cardboard cut-outs, or dolls with cardboard wings sewed on to them may kneel or hover near the altar. Every day at some time the little ones should kneel and say reverently one "Hail Mary" and make up little conversation prayers to the Angels.
If the baby has no rosary, try to get him one, — an inexpensive one the loss of which will not be a calamity. It may be best to keep it in a pretty box on the altar.
November This month we realize that not only are there angels present, but saints, and that perhaps among these saints there are some of our own relatives and friends who, though not canonized, are included among "All Saints."
It is a simple matter to explain to the children the meaning of All Saints' Day. And they will see that it is another day of rejoicing because so many people loved God well enough to become saints after they died. Be sure to make it a day of festivity. It is a good idea to get out pictures of some saints and also photographs of deceased relatives and say that maybe these also are saints of God.
From that "maybe" you can explain that some who didn't love God quite enough are kept waiting to be with Him, and that if we pray for them they can go faster to God. After the age of three, the word "Purgatory" may be taught as the name of the place where they wait to be made perfect for Heaven.
Of course the lesson about saints leads straight to the altar. Kneel down and say little prayers to the saints you know (namesakes, for instance) and then ask God to let the relatives go quickly to Him from Purgatory. It would be good to find out how many saints the children know, and to say a word of greeting to each on this, their general feast day. And then, of course, name all the dear dead relatives.
Activity Source: Religion in the Home: Monthly Aids for the Parents of Pre-School Children by Katherine Delmonico Byles, Paulist Press, 1938