In our house each Christmas, you’ll find a manger.
It’s nothing special– just a crude crossing of plastic boards covered with an old baby blanket that you might see in any outdoor nativity scene. But in our family, the arrival of the manger has become one our favorite traditions, one that keeps even my five-year-old happily focused on why we’re celebrating Christmas in the first place.
On a pedestal above our manger sits a jar filled with straw. At the beginning of each week, we draw names, and we spend the rest of the week secretly doing nice things for the family member whose name we drew. Each time we do something, we put a few straws into the manger. By the time Christmas rolls around, the manger is completely filled, and ready for baby Jesus.
I got the idea from a Tennessee blogger, who read about it in an out-of-print book. In years past, my son was really too young to fully comprehend how our manger tradition worked and what it meant. This year, though, he’s five, and he’s finally getting it.
“We’re going to DRAW NAMES,” I announced loudly as we prepared to get started a few nights ago, “and when you pick a name, you’re going to KEEP IT A SECRET. Do you understand, Bruiser? WE’RE GOING TO KEEP THE NAMES WE DRAW A SECRET.” My son nodded gravely. So far, so good. “Then you’re going to DO GOOD THINGS for that person ALL WEEK LONG. But you’re going to KEEP THOSE GOOD THINGS SECRET. That means YOU’RE NOT GOING TO TELL ANYONE ABOUT THEM. And you’re NOT GOING TO TELL ANYONE WHOSE NAME YOU DREW. Got it?”
“Got it,” my children said in unison.
With that, we each drew a name. There was much secretive chuckling and furtive glancing around. My son looked thoughtful for a moment, then disappeared upstairs, returning with a dollar bill in his hand.
“This dollar is for you, Mommy,” he said shyly, handing it to me.
“Why thank you, Bruiser,” I said. He smiled, then ran to grab a handful of straw from the jar and place it in the manger.
“Gee, I wonder why he gave me this dollar?” I said. My husband and daughter both burst out laughing.
Bruiser, though, clearly thought he was doing a wonderful job of keeping his name secret. The next morning after breakfast, he came to me and motioned for me to bend down so that he could whisper into my ear.
“Mommy, I think Punky gotted Daddy and Daddy gotted Punky,” he said knowledgeably.
“Really?” I asked. “Wow. You may be right.”
“I wonder who gotted me, though?” he asked, genuinely befuddled.
“It’s a mystery!” I said.
Over the last few days, the pile of hay in our manger has gotten larger and Bruiser has gotten lots of extra attention (not to mention an entire bag of Reese’s Pieces, his favorite candy) from me, and I have gotten a few crappy McDonalds toys and one Angry Bird ring from him. He has almost slipped up a few times and spilled the beans, most notably when he asked me how to spell the word ‘Mommy.’
“M-O-M-M-Y,” I said.
“Punky spells it M-O-M-Y,” he told me, clearly thrilled that his saintly older sister had at last done something wrong.
“How do you know how Punky spells it?” I asked him.
“I don’t know how I know,” he said, thinking quickly. “But it’s not because it was on that piece of paper I gotted when we picked manger names!”
By yesterday, Bruiser simply couldn’t take it anymore.
“I wonder whose name you drew, Bruiser?” I said teasingly as we were chatting in my bathroom while I got ready. He looked at me for a long moment.
“I’ll tell you, but you can’t tell anybody,” he said quietly.
“Okay,” I said.
“I got YOU,” he whispered. “Don’t tell ANYBODY!”
“I won’t,” I promised.
“Who did you get, Mommy?” he asked.
“Do you promise not to tell?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said.
“I got YOU,” I whispered. “Don’t tell ANYBODY.”
He walked over to where I was sitting in front of the bathroom mirror and put his arms around me. Cheek to cheek, my heart melting, we smiled silently at each other in the mirror.
Yes, our Christmas manger is one awesome tradition.
Top image via midiman/Flickr