Preparing the Manger

Young women carry a crib containing the Christ child to the creche at Daley Plaza in Chicago. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)
Young women carry a crib containing the Christ child to the
creche at Daley Plaza in Chicago. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)
Just before Advent, Mom sent me and my siblings out to the field next to our house to pick bunches of the straw that grew there. In the summertime, we would imitate Laura Ingles Wilder in the opening credits of “Little House on the Prairie,” running through the field, falling down and laughing, clutching our bunches of straw. In the cold of December, we were a bit quicker in our task.

Back inside, those of us that were old enough to handle scissors cut the straw to a length that could fit nicely into a shoe box, which was left uncovered in a place we could all reach. Whenever we did something good, our reward was to take one piece of the straw and place it inside the barn that sat empty on the sill of the bay window.

Mary and Joseph were miles away on a coffee table in the living room making their way to Bethlehem. Mary knelt on bended knee, Joseph stood stick-straight holding his staff, both of them staring at the empty space between them. Though their ceramic bodies would never change position, the two of them would soon arrive at the edge of the bay window and finally into the wooden barn. The three shepherds were making their way across the top of the upright piano, their sheep in a perpetual pose of feeding, or looking up at the shepherds inquisitively. Baby Jesus was hidden in a drawer, arms outstretched, waiting for his big day. By the time he arrived, thanks to our good deeds, there would be a soft bed of hay on which his parents could put his manger.

Christmas was a time of anticipation, eagerly waiting not only for Baby Jesus but also for a pile of presents under the tree. But in order for that pile to appear, first there had to be nice things done for siblings, chores done without asking, beds made, and parents listened to, all so that baby Jesus had a warm bed of hay on which to rest.

Years later, I realize Mom’s plan worked: I make my bed, I do my chores without being asked (even though, living alone, the only person to be accountable to is myself), and I try to do some nice things for my siblings. Those nice things no longer include sharing toys. Instead, I’ll help one sister organize her closet. Or help another move into her new condo. There’s no hay to be put in the manger as a reward for doing these things, but I still receive gifts in return: lots of thank yous and hugs, and often some clothes discarded by my siblings that were destined for Good Will.

I still listen to my parents, but it’s not because I want to dip my hands into that shoebox full of hay. In fact, the guidance I receive from them is no longer about how to behave (I hope!) but instead, they are responding to my requests for help or advice. (Though Mom declared long ago that she doesn’t give advice; she simply asks the questions necessary to be sure we’ve thought through all the options.)

My preparations for Christmas no longer include a frolic through a hay field. The good deeds now occur not just during Advent, but all year long. And the best gifts I receive are not necessarily material things, but time spent with friends and family, meals shared together, memories recalled and created.

What Christmas preparations were part of your childhood? What about now?