On the first Sunday of Advent after church, I get to go home and do one of my most favorite things. No, it is not decorate a Christmas tree—we will wait until the week of Christmas to do that. On the first Sunday of Advent, in my family, we set up our nativities. We have nearly 30 nativities, of all different styles, from different places around the world, that we have collected over the years. There’s the one my husband gave me the first Christmas that we were married. There’s the one made of olivewood that we bought together in Bethlehem, the city of Jesus’ birth. We have nativities given to us by each of my sisters, and many beloved friends, hand carried back from places they traveled around the world. We have a nativity that was a gift from our dear friend Scott, whose father, a woodworker, made himself. This collection of ours is precious—it carries with it so many memories and stories, and setting it out is one of the highlights of each year for me.
But we don’t just set out the nativities, willy-nilly. We have traditions around how they are displayed as well. We always place the wise men far on the other side of the room (or sometimes in a different room of the house all together), to remind ourselves that they are still on a long journey to get to the manger. We move them closer and closer each week, and finally put them in their places on Epiphany. And we also take all of the Baby Jesus figures and put them away, in a drawer, not to be taken out until Christmas Day. This too, serves as a reminder, that it is not yet Christmas, but Advent, and we are waiting for the coming of Christ, even in our nativity scenes.
I have always loved the symbolism of this. I would look, throughout Advent, at our nativity scenes, with the Mary and Joseph and angel and animal figures all positioned around waiting, waiting, with no baby Jesus in sight. They are ready, in position, patient, and the absence in the manger is a powerful sign of all that they are waiting for. But I will admit that, until we had children, it was mostly just a symbol for me. Casey and I would put all those baby Jesus figures in a drawer, and mostly forget about them until Christmas Day. They were safely tucked away, conveniently stored, until we remembered to pull them back out.
But the year that my oldest daughter, Isabelle, turned two, it all became much more than a symbol. That year we pulled out the nativity scenes as usual and set them up—including her own Fisher Price Nativity that plays away in a manger loudly and wins the award for “most annoying nativity” in our collection. Then we took all of the Baby Jesus figures and got ready to put them in a drawer. “Why?” Isabelle asked, and Casey and I explained that it wasn’t Christmas yet, and Jesus doesn’t come until Christmas, and so we would put them away to keep them safe until it was time. She seemed to take it in stride, and we thought that once again we’d be able to tuck Jesus away and forget it.
But no way, no how.
That Advent, over and over again, nearly every day, Isabelle wanted to peek into the Baby Jesus drawer. She wanted to check on him and make sure he was okay. She would ask us, with excitement and expectation, about when Jesus would get to come out. She waited, not passively, but actively, aware every minute of where Jesus was, longing and yearning for him to be able to come out.
And when he finally did… On Christmas Day, when we took the little Jesus figures out and put each one in its place—it was better than the slew of presents she’d opened that morning or the candy and cookies she’d devoured. It was the best part of Christmas, bar none. Because who cares about candy and presents, when Jesus is there, is here, finally in his place?
That year when I put out our nativity sets I let my daughter teach me about the real meaning of Advent. She won’t let me just tuck Jesus in a drawer and forget about him during the hustle and bustle of this busy season. She showed me what it means to wait—not passively or forgetfully, but with longing and excitement, on the edge of my seat, knowing that what is coming is not yet here, but that when it comes… it will be amazing.
That little two-year-old is ten this year, and her sister is six. And every year our nativity tradition has just gotten better; every year my children have taught me something new about what it means to tend and to care for Jesus in our midst. This year Isabelle was in charge of “putting Jesus in the drawer,” and the way she carefully took and cradled each Jesus in her hands brought tears to my eyes.
Our younger daughter Adelaide was in charge of the “wise guys,” and her joy in discovering each one, and arranging them “in a parade, because they are going to see Jesus and celebrate!” was another lesson in faith and love.They amaze me, again and again, by taking our yearly tradition and infusing it with new meaning and depth.
I wonder what Advent traditions help you learn how to wait for Jesus?
I wonder what your kids are teaching you this Advent season?