Early each holiday season when the lights and ornaments are brought out from storage and we fill the house with festive decorations, we also bring out an old baby doll our girls used to play with. We swaddle the doll in a faded, worn receiving blanket, place it in a shoebox covered in brown paper with a shiny red bow, and slide it under our Christmas tree. It’s a simple representation of the gift of baby Jesus.
The brown paper box is meant to be a manger, so it’s also filled with “straw” made from ripped strips of yellow construction paper. Many of these strips of paper have statements written on them, such as:
“I’m not proud of nagging.”
“Forgive me for getting too angry.”
“Thank you for the gift of wonderful friends.”
“Help me overcome my doubts and build a stronger faith.”
“Help me think. You know what I mean.”
My personal favorite is by one of the kids when they were very small, “Help me stop picking my nose.” 🙂
These words are meant to represent the “gifts” our family has offered to baby Jesus over the years. The collection has grown but the sentiment remains the same, though the confessions and requests have changed and deepened through the years as the kids have matured. It has become a treasure which I enjoy re-reading every year! To this day I still urge each member of our family to write a new one to keep the tradition going.
We first began doing this as a project through a Christian mom’s group I attended with friends, when our kids were very young. I decided to keep it going, embracing it as an opportunity to keep the kids focused on the real reason and purpose for why God sent His son Jesus to the world. And the truth is that I myself need a strong reminder every year of how to be rightly focused on why we celebrate Christmas and how to prepare for worship. I’m guilty of getting sidetracked and being concerned with the wrong priorities.
During the holidays we become very busy and especially good at consuming. We consume excess quantities of merchandise, services and food. But we also consume various messages which seem to start earlier and earlier each year, such as advertisements for products, sales, fundraisers, outreach programs, and special events. Children hear messages about how gifts from Santa are contingent upon their naughty or nice behavior. Social media offers highlight reels of idealized scenes, beautiful people and perfectly decorated homes. From them we absorb pressure to plan, shop, spend, bake, entertain and serve. We elevate gathering with family & friends and “spreading good cheer” as the ultimate form of celebration.
Still, it seems to me that the primary cultural message of Christmas has evolved into a self-centered concept about gift-giving: receiving gifts helps us be happy and more comfortable, while giving gifts makes other people happy, which helps us feel good about ourselves. While this may in fact be true and positive in various ways, and while these activities are welcomed, it’s so easy to focus on them to the exclusion of the only true Christmas message that matters, the Good News of the savior’s birth: Luke 2:10-11, And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Our youngest is 15 now, but when all our kids were small, we included Santa in our traditions. We left him cookies and milk with a note near the fireplace and sprinkled reindeer food on the lawn before bedtime on Christmas Eve (actually, we STILL do both just for the fun of it!). But we decided to downplay Santa’s role and described him simply as one of God’s “helpers”. In fact, we didn’t want the kids to think that presents had anything to do with their behavior. We taught them that receiving gifts on Christmas – including Jesus’ birth, happens because we love them and because God loves them. They learned that despite their mistakes and failings, gifts were not earned but simply given because we want to bless them out of our love for them.
Being careful with this message was very important to us, but I still wanted a more tangible way to help them comprehend why Jesus’ birth is such a precious gift. So we explained that it’s precisely because we are bad which makes Jesus’ birth so good. We first have to understand how much we struggle with sin to realize how much we need a savior. We must first recognize what we do wrong and how we fail, then acknowledge that God can help us overcome. We confess our sins and offer them to our savior.
And so we write our mistakes, our sins, our thanks and even our requests down on the paper “hay.” We put them in the manger-box as offerings for our savior, trusting in his ability to redeem us. Christ is God’s gift of love to the world; we offer him our faith. In this way the manger-box helps our family remember that although exchanging material gifts is meaningful and special, the best gift of all was not material; it was sacrificial and holy. Christ left his throne of glory in heaven to live among us to fulfill God’s plan for the atonement of sins through his sacrificial death and resurrection from the grave: John 3:16, For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
This is such a wondrous mystery: that God would willingly offer his son, and that Christ would willingly humble and sacrifice himself, offering his substitutionary atonement for our sins, bringing redemption for those of us who believe, not because of anything we can earn but because of God’s grace. This should bring us to our knees in worship and reverence, because nothing else compares to his extravagant love: Luke 2:12-14, ”And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”