Operation Christmas Elf and a Virtual Grotto in this Time of Covid-19


operation christmas elf
The Caritas Christmas Grotto, 2018.

By Sr Silvana Dallanegra rscj, Development Worker for West London

This time last year I was gearing up for Operation Christmas Elf, our annual collaboration with the Prison Advice & Care Trust (Pact). The idea is simple: for people to buy Christmas gifts for prisoners’ children, to help alleviate the distress and difficulties they experience, alongside their own hidden sentence of stigma and separation. These gifts were collected and sorted by Pact, then sent to the prisons where they were wrapped and given to children at special pre-Christmas family days organised by the charity.

So, this time last year I was contacting parishes and making plans with the new Pact “Head Elf”, telling her to prepare for an inspiring, moving outpouring of generosity and enthusiasm, resulting in hundreds of gifts. That had certainly been my experience, working on the Caritas side of this campaign since 2017, and seeing the love and concern which went into each purchase. What began in 2016 with half a dozen parishes in Westminster donating 300 gifts between them has grown, year on year – though even I was utterly amazed when the 2019 campaign saw Pact’s Grotto bursting with over 3,000 gifts!

Fast forward a year… 2020 has been difficult for all of us. Like prisoners’ families we too have been separated from loved ones, and we’ve all lived and are still living with varying degrees of loss, insecurity, confusion and lockdown. Covid19 restrictions – added to pre-existing security rules – have especially impacted prisoners’ families. There have been fewer prison visits and only one adult visitor allowed, which means children haven’t seen their imprisoned parent since the start of 2020. The pre-Christmas family visits at which they would have received their gifts have, of course, been cancelled. And even though prisoners have been allowed more frequent phone calls, we all know from our own experience of lockdown how, helpful though they may be, calls really aren’t as good as actually being with the ones we love.

But the good news is that prisons will allow prisoners to send book tokens to their children! And so, for this year’s Operation Christmas Elf supporters are able to buy book tokens for £10 and post them to Pact’s very own Santa’s Grotto, from where they will be distributed to the prisons. It’s a simple idea, with the potential to open children to the magic of book-buying and reading – as well as the joy of receiving a Christmas gift from their parent. It might not be as much fun as buying a teddy bear or a game – but it’s just as worthwhile and valuable; maybe even more so, this year.

This time last year I was also thinking about the Caritas Christmas Grotto in our office in Vaughan House. I was untangling tinsel and smoothing some battered angels as they emerged from their box, in readiness for creating the Vaughan House/curia collection point. For the past four years my diocesan and Caritas colleagues, and their family and friends, have responded to this campaign with as much generosity and enthusiasm as anyone else, and November would see growing piles of gifts, usually topped with the cutest cuddly toys or most fun-looking gimmicks. Visitors and colleagues would pause, and, cheerfully peering into bags, reminisce about their old childhood Lego sets or favourite books, or enquire about the campaign’s progress. The colourful, burgeoning Grotto would cast its own gentle glow, brightening even the dullest November day, and leaving a stark bareness once the gifts had been collected by Pact.

This year, alas, the angels must remain in their box. My colleagues and I are all mostly working from home, with occasional days in Vaughan House, and a reliance on the internet to bring us together… which means we can have a Virtual Grotto instead!!

operation christmas elf
Each element on the virtual grotto represents someone
buying a book token.

When I first emailed everyone to announce Operation Christmas Elf, the grotto was so bare and dark that it was “virtually” non-existent… it was in effect a dark, formless void: but, as in Genesis, the Spirit, in this case of generosity, was hovering over it… and each time someone tells me that they are buying a book token, or that they’ve enlisted family or friends, they add something to the Grotto. Already it has started to take shape, and acquire a few angels and stars, and with them, a gradual lightening of the sky. I’m hopeful that over the next few weeks it will grow, acquire more light, colour, warmth, angels, a manger, straw… and by Advent, become a space ready to welcome Mary and Joseph, and eventually their Son.

If you too would like to be part of our Operation Christmas Elf, you can find all the details, including where to buy and send these tokens on the Pact website.

And if you’d also like to help fill up our Grotto, please email me at caritaswestminster@rcdow.org.uk

We all look forward to working with you to put love into action, and helping prisoners’ children feel loved and remembered. And I also hope that in this Grotto we too can find welcome and warmth, and a place where we can all be together, even though we must remain apart.



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