Friday, December 12, 2008

Catholic Christmas Traditions: The Nativity Set and "Little" Sacrifices

Any day of the Advent or Christmas season is a good time to share with children the story of St. Francis of Assisi and the first Nativity set. St. Francis of Assisi assembled the first “living” Nativity scene on Christmas Eve, gathering together some animals in a creche and telling those who assembled the story of Jesus' humble birth - God's own example of humility. The saint did this in order to incite holy devotion to God. Those who anticipated the Messiah never expected that the King of Kings would be born in a palace. Rather, He confounded man’s wisdom by being born in an obscure stable - and that one solitary act possesses many lessons to teach us!

Even small children can daily prepare their hearts for Jesus by learning how to make small sacrifices throughout Advent, then from Christmas or the Epiphany righton through “Candlemas” (February 2, the traditional liturgical closing of the Christmas season). Parents might encourage older children let sacrifices be known only to God in a uniqueway – through a special use of the family Nativity set.

We parents might start by explaining to small children (older ones, too!) that they will be responsible for “upkeeping” the stable for the Infant Jesus by doing what God expects from all of us - good deeds, done for love of Him. Set the stable up but keep it empty of all figures except the empty creche (if the family Nativity set has a small statue of the Infant Jesus on the manger, cover it with a few pieces of cotton balls). Next to the stable, keep a small, unbreakable covered container in which are placed pieces of straw, about 4 inches in length (in the city, small bags of straw are available at craft shops).
For each sacrifice (a good deed), each child may add a single piece of straw the stable or on top of the Christ Child's manger (already covered with cotton). Some families may start this tradition at the very beginning of Advent, and others begin on Christmas Day itself, adding the “sacrificial straw” each day in order to protect the Holy Infant. This latter practice is also a good reminder that the true Christmas season begins on December 25!

To cultivate the practice of "little sacrifices," one fairly simple idea sets the tone for each day. Every morning, the parents call all the children to join them as they all start the day. Together, the family prays the Morning Offering, and then each members places a,single piece of straw on the little manger.

Do this every day for a few weeks and a good habit is either formed or further grounded in the family - the Morning Offering!

We can also explain to the children that together, the whole family is going to practice sacrifices by offering them silently to God. (This is something we should do every day, but especially we should make this a constant practice during Advent and Lent.) Some ideas of sacrifices include keeping quiet when someone else murmurs against them and offering our hurt feelings in sacrifice for the conversion of sinners, not complaining when asked to do anything but responding quickly and cheerfully, speaking kindly when tempted to do otherwise, and so on.

Parents may wish to remind the children that this “placing of the straw” is a private matter between God and them, and they should try their best not to make their visit to the crib a “public matter” for everyone else to see. The act of keeping private any good action cultivates the virtue of humility (love of poverty of spirit), training each of us do everything - from making the bed to feeding the cat or the dog or the bird, to washing the dishes or the clothes, shovelling the snow, putting up with a miserable cold without complaint, etc. - solely for the love of Jesus.

Also, parents may wish to quietly pull a child aside who did something kind and yet didn’t remember to visit the Nativity set. This is only right for, just as parents must correct their children, they must encourage them in virtue. A child who hasn’t had the best day may realize on his own that he didn’t have“anything” to offer the Baby Jesus. This is the time when parents might look for “a little good” the child did well that day, help the little child (one who has not yet reached the age of reason but is growing close to it) to pray an Act of Contrition. Always encourage the child to start anew, asking for Our Lady's help. The offering of even little things is consistent with the Church’s teachings, training the little ones for future fidelity in "daily duty" as Catholics.

Another idea: Moving the Nativity set figures closer to their final destination is another activity children will enjoy. Perhaps each child can have his own little unbreakable set in his room. Each day, the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, as well as the shepherds and kings, all travelling from a great distance, inch their way to the stable at Bethlehem. Of course, Our Lady and St. Joseph are in the stable by Christmas Eve. By this time, the creche is hopefully heaped with straw, ready for the Christ Child. When the Christ Child is finally uncovered, the the shepherds arrive soon afterward. The Wise men are the last to arrive - on January 6, the Epiphany.

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