Beds of Straw

Christmas in October

Though it continues to fall on December 25th, each year Christmas seems to arrive a little earlier. I can remember a time when my family used to wait until December 1st before we would decorate our house in preparation for Christmas. This year I went to the store the week before Halloween to find some ghost decorations only to find the shelves stocked with Christmas lights and blow-up Santas for the lawn.

From store advertising to coffee cups, it is hard to deny that ‘Christmas creep’ is not a real thing.

I would like to believe that part of this is due a longing for the hope and joy that are traditionally associated with Christmas. Even in a secular culture, people speak of the ‘magic of Christmas’. The special activities and events we participate in create memories in our families.

While this may be partially true, there is no doubt that Christmas has become a huge marketing opportunity (see coffee cups, mentioned above). The Christmas-related noise emerges in early November and is relentless. It is music, events, and the pressure to fill the calendar with activities and visits.

Before anyone accuses me of being the incarnation of the Grinch, I am not saying that any of these things are inherently bad. This year, however, I have become more aware of my own preparation for Christmas, but not in the way you might think.

Anticipation

There are few people you will meet who get more excited for Christmas Day than me. One year, when I was 10 or 11 years old, I woke up my family at 4am on Christmas morning because I was so excited to go downstairs and open presents. Nearly 30 years later, I still find it difficult to fall asleep on Christmas Eve out of excitement for the morning.

There are not many things I look forward to each year more than Christmas morning. As an adult, the feelings of joy I experienced as a child remain, but they are accompanied by feelings of relief. Relief that everything got done. The presents, the food, the activities.

This year, I have felt a desire to enter into a parallel preparation for Christmas. Culturally, what I have been referring to as the Christmas season, is very noisy and distracting. Through reading and different podcasts I listen to, I came across an approach that is new to me. If I had to describe it in one word it would be ‘quiet’.

In the Church, the Christmas season actually starts on Christmas, not before. The period before Christmas, Advent, is meant to be a time of preparation for the arrival of Christ. For most of my life I have been aware of Advent, which consists of the four Sundays prior to Christmas, but rarely have I changed much about my behaviors or interior life during this period. Like many people, I find those weeks incredibly busy – a sprint before the big day.

This year I have been reflecting on the scene of Christ’s birth – the stable in Bethlehem. Within that setting, there is one object that stands out to me more than any other. The manger, where the infant Jesus was placed after His birth. It may seem like a strange thing to reflect on, but the image of the manger has been one that has helped guide me this year as I prepare for Christmas.

Modern Day Mangers

My family bought a book a couple of years ago called The Giving Manger. The book was accompanied by a small wooden manger and a bundle of straw. The story is about a family getting ready for Christmas. In it, the father makes a small wooden manger and invites his family to place a piece of straw in it for each act of kindness and service they perform for another person. The idea being that by Christmas, the manger is full of straw and ready for the baby Jesus.

We read the story to our kids each year at the beginning of Advent, and there is always a flurry of activity on the first day where the kids are trying to ‘earn hay’ to put in the manger.

The toy manger is a visual reminder of the preparation for Christmas, but lately I have found it pointing to another manger, less visible to the eye – the human heart.

As we celebrate the birth of Christ on Christmas, it is more than just a birthday party. It is the celebration of God entering the world as one of us, to share in our experiences. Our joys, works, victories, and sufferings. He chose to come into the world, but it is our choice whether or not to receive Him.

When I am distracted by the stress and commercial pressures of a ‘cultural Christmas’, I do not have the capacity to create space in my heart and be prepared to receive Jesus at Christmas. Becoming aware of this has helped me to ‘add straw’ to the manger in my heart this Advent.

What does this look like in practical terms? A few things I have tried to bring into my daily routine include the following:

Quiet time – each day, I have tried to find at least 20 minutes to read and quietly reflect on where I am in relation to preparing for Christmas.

Practicing gratitudes – there are a lot of celebrations this time of year, most of which include food and drink. Food magically appears in the office kitchen. I personally find it easy to gorge on treats. While I am not suggesting that Advent should be a four week fast, I do think it is important to receive and be grateful for those things.

Reminding myself that we aren’t there yet – while there are many parties and opportunities to celebrate leading up to Christmas, I have to remember that there is still work to be done, particularly on my heart. Advent is a season of anticipation, a hopeful season that points to joy, but the source of all joy arrives on Christmas Day.

Balancing Act

Given the magnitude of the celebration, there is much work to be done leading up the Christmas. I do not suggest that listening to Christmas carols or decorating your house before a certain date is bad. In fact, anything that points to the joy of Christmas and helps us to prepare for that day should be welcomed.

At the same time, I am coming to understand the value of finding quiet moments in the preparation for Christmas. To reflect on what Christmas truly is and seek out the ways in which I can be better prepared to welcome God into my life. Each time I do this, it is the equivalent of adding another piece of straw into the manger.

One act on its own does not make a bed, but over time each piece helps to form a heart that is truly ready to receive and celebrate the joy that comes on Christmas.

– Sean

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