submitted by Emily Varner -

Mention “Christmas traditions” and something within me freaks. Tie myself down to one way of doing things forever? Start a routine that’s only remembered when I forget it? Not me. Yet as parents, we’ve all discovered the necessity of repetition in teaching our children about the things we value. This very idea of formation by repetition informs the ancient liturgical practices so many are rediscovering. Our Christmas decorating this year uncovered a simple, natural expression of Advent that I hope can become a part of our Christmas memories as a family.

Somehow I’ve received as gifts nativity sets enough for each room of our small house. The bedroom dressers, end table, kitchen windowsill and computer hutch each have at least the basic characters: Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Most have more. My favorite is a hollowed-out coconut with tiny, featureless wooden figures glued inside. Most, however, are the glass-figure, dollar-store variety, each figure looking particularly reverent and somber. Turning most of these into additional props for my daughter Elinor’s daily play has me mulling over Advent aloud with her, and silently within.

It’s mostly about presence and mindfulness, of course. The constant visual reminder of where we stand in the church year and the tactile prompt to talk about it are vital given the other Christmas messages vying for my attention.

The other day Elinor and I discovered a crèche just right for her dresser, which she can currently just barely reach the top of. Resisting my urge to set up the scene myself, I decided to sit back and watch.

She sets up a scene unlike any storybook picture I have ever seen. Joseph in the distance, looking at Jesus straight-on; Mary and one of the wise men kneeling with heads together; the other two wise men, backs to Mary and Jesus, looking south.

My unsuspecting daughter has just laid out for me a meditation; I study it like an icon. Joseph thinks to himself, “You know, he still looks just like any other baby.” Mary listens to the wise man’s travel tales, holding them in her heart. Maybe some night when Jesus is having trouble getting to sleep, she’ll tell him the story. The other magi discuss what they’ve found. How can this be a royal family? They’re poor fugitives, on the run from their country’s ruler. They muse together. I muse too. Where am I meant to recognize the face of God in my day? Perhaps in similarly unlikely places.

The baby Jesus figures spend a good bit of time away from their scene because Elin has taken to them like baby dolls. Often I find them dwarfed by the doll high chair, and often she tells me “Baby Jesus crying.” We talk about why he might cry. Is he tired? Hungry? Does he need his mommy? I delight in subtly confronting the Docetic view that “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” And Elinor’s compassion prompts a prayer that she would always desire to dry the tears of those who cry.

The idea of tradition still scares me, inducing premature guilt over failing to live up to my expectations. But I hope that yearly I’m at least able to manage getting out the crèches, and that in years to come our play and talking about the holy family will be a recurring holiday memory that shapes the imagination and action of my children.

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posted by Julie at 11:05:00 AM |