Catholic Activity: Preparing the Manger
Preparing the manger is the practice of preparing a soft bedding in the manger for the Christ Child by using little wisps of straw as tokens of prayers and good works performed through the penitential season of Advent. This is originally a French custom that quickly spread to other countries. Every night the child is allowed to put in the crib one straw for each act of devotion, good work or sacrifice performed. "Thus the Christ Child, coming on Christmas Day, finds an ample supply of tender straw to keep Him warm and to soften the hardness of the manger's boards" (Francis Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, 1958).
The crib or manger represents our hearts as we prepare for Christ as He comes in threefold way: 1) coming in the past, at Bethlehem, 2) coming in the present, in Mass and into our souls through grace and through Holy Communion, and 3) coming in the future, at the Last Judgment.
Although preparing the manger is geared toward children, so that they can see an external expression of their good works "piling up", this is a custom the whole family can practice. You can choose to have one large crib, in the main part of the house. This will be the manger that everyone will contribute their straws.
On Christmas Eve, the house is darkened while the family processes with lighted candles and the youngest holding the baby Jesus, singing Silent Night. The baby is placed in the manger, and the Gospel of Luke 2:15-20 is read, various prayers said, including the blessing of the crib, and then O Come All Ye Faithful is sung.
Another offshoot from this custom is taken from Family Advent Customs by Helen McLoughlin, Liturgical Press:
On the first Sunday of Advent each child in our family receives an empty manger. A sugar box covered with bright paper will do as well. At bedtime the children draw straws for each kind deed performed in honor of Baby Jesus as His birthday surprise. The straws are placed in the child's manger or box daily. It is amazing how much love a child can put into Advent when he is preparing for His Redeemer's coming in grace.
On Christmas each child finds an Infant in his manager, placed on a small table or on a chair beside his bed. Usually it is a tiny doll, beautiful dress; but one of our children receives a Hummel Infant year after year. This custom, which in no way interferes with the larger manger in the living room, fills the child with a longing in Advent, and gives him an image of his Redeemer as his first happy glance mornings and his last impression at night during the entire Christmas season.
Use your imagination to construct a crib or manger for your family. It can be of simple materials, like cardboard, made from an existing box or more elaborate, constructed from wood or branches. Just be sure that the manger's bottom and sides can hold the straw, or place some material along the bottom and sides, so that you don't create a mess and lose all the "good works". Creating a new crib could be a yearly family project to prepare for Christmas.
Activity Source: Original Text (JGM) by Jennifer Gregory Miller, © Copyright 2003-2013 by Jennifer Gregory Miller