Straws in the Manger -- Preparing Our Hearts for Christ's Birth
Of all the Advent traditions, the one that my family practices annually is the French custom of preparing the manger for Christmas. This is the tradition of making Baby Jesus' bed soft by adding straws in the manger. The straws reflect extra spiritual efforts made during Advent. In my experience of devotions, this simple one really touches all ages, young and old. The manger or crib is a symbol of our hearts. Advent is the time to prepare one's heart for Christ's coming at Christmas. This imagery is also helpful for older children and adults who no longer need the tangible manger and straws.
He Sees You When You're Sleeping
In looking forward to Christmas, utilizing Santa as always watching is not necessary to persuade good behavior from the children. My sons, ages 11 and 7, are still motivated by thinking of Jesus born in the stable in Bethlehem. The boys are thinking ahead to Christmas. The thought of God's Son as an Infant in the manger touches their hearts. They think of that cold night, the strange place and the hard manger. How can they prepare their mangers for Jesus so that He will be welcome, warm, comfortable and safe? The straws in the manger reflect the extra good deeds, the prompt obedience, the kindness to siblings, the well-said prayers, the extra prayers and sacrifices, the help without asking, etc. all Advent long. They are preparing their hearts for Christ to enter on Christmas.
It thrills me to see the response and renewal to prepare the manger during Advent every year, even as they grow older. I know there will come a time when we won't need to keep a public record of the good deeds, but the empty manger will still be a visual reminder for the family members to prepare their hearts for Christmas.
Building Blocks of Prayer
This isn't just a childish custom, but beginning formation in the spiritual life. In the evening, the child reflects on his day to recall the efforts made to earn a straw. This is an early form of examining one's conscience, an important daily Christian habit.
[Discursive meditation] involves utilizing a scriptural passage, sacred image or scene from the life of Christ as a means of focus and reflection. One may try to imagine the scene with the people present and place themselves in that scene. This is commonly used by Teresa [of Avila] in her description of recollection (Family Life Institute).
Personal and sensorial memories can be the building blocks of prayer. Experiences of weather, fatigue, parental love and care, smell and warmth of animals are all sensory images recalled when placing oneself in the scene in the cave at Bethlehem. The interactions with family and friends, especially with babies and toddlers provide familiarity and develop the desire to welcome Baby Jesus. Taking all these sensory and practical life experiences help visualize the manger scene, but it also develops the prayer habit of placing oneself in the scenes of the life of Christ.
Simplicity Speaks Volumes
Constructing a crib or manger is not complicated. It can be made of simple materials, such as a shoe box, Clementine box or constructed from wood or branches. The main criteria is that the manger's bottom and sides can hold the straw so it doesn't lose all the "good works." The straw can be wood shavings (neatly packaged at the craft store), raffia cut in 3-4" strips, yarn, or strips of paper. It's best to not pick small materials that the children can't easily see progress in filling the manger.
Many years ago my uncle made my mother's manger out of some scrap shelving material. When I married my husband made a manger patterned after my family's version. The triangular bottom of the manger is ideal for quickly giving a sense of progress in lining the manger with softness. My uncle was raised on a farm, but I'm a city gal, so all those years I thought it was it was his own design. On one visit to Mount Vernon, I was thrilled to see a feed manger for the hogs in the exact same shape as our family manger! To be able to point to the real manger helped drive home that Jesus had to lie in the animals' feeding trough. The surroundings were definitely not plush, soft or pleasantly fragrant. Envisioning a real manger provides more motivation to work hard at filling the manger with sweet, fresh hay from our good works and prayers. (I shared some simple instructions in a PDF to replicate my manger. )
Family and Individual Mangers
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. There can be one large crib, in the main part of the house in which everyone will contribute their straws. In addition, each child can have an individual manger, by his/her bedside. This echoes the idea from Helen McLoughlin from Family Advent Customs:
On the first Sunday of Advent each child in our family receives an empty manger. An oatmeal 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 manger, placed on a small table or on a chair beside his bed. Usually it is a tiny doll, beautifully dressed; 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
As Mrs. McLoughlin mentions, having both the family manger and individual child mangers doesn't work against each other, but works together. We crafted Take-Along Mangers for the mangers for each child to keep near their bedside.
What to use to represent Baby Jesus is a very personal choice. My aunt used a beautiful statue, but my mom chose to use a small doll that the younger children could touch and carry and caress (and they did) which brings the reality of a newborn baby closer to home. We use a vinyl doll, about 6-8″ old Vogue doll, similar to my mother’s, which I found inexpensively on eBay a few years ago. The body wasn’t in perfect condition, but I knew it would be covered up by the clothes, a simple sac pattern, with gathered neck and sleeves, cut from white flannel, just like my mother's Baby Jesus.
For the individual mangers we use a small plastic baby Jesus or a wooden peg person.
Blessing of the Crib
On Christmas Eve or Christmas morning before the gifts are opened, the family processes with lighted candles to the empty manger. The youngest child holds the baby Jesus while everyone sings Silent Night and places it in the manger. The age and attention span dictates the length of the prayers, but the ceremony includes the passage from the Roman Martyrology on the Birth of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of Luke 2:15-20, various prayers, including the Magnificat and Blessing of the Crib, and then sing O Come All Ye Faithful or the last verse of Silent Night.
While Advent has already begun, it's never too late to start this custom. Preparing the manger can help prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ and help us develop our prayer life with Christ.
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