As a child, unwrapping the nativity set was one of my favorite aspects of decorating for Christmas. My mother would bring the cardboard box down from the attic and set it gently on the sofa of the living room — you know, the fancy room that the kids were supposed to avoid except for special occasions. My younger sister and I would unwrap the porcelain figurines one by one and carefully place them around the manger. (In my memory, I was wholly cooperative and very helpful, but now as a mother of two, I have a feeling my mother may recount the experience differently.) More than anything in those days, I hoped that I would be the one to unwrap Mary. I remember eyeballing the different newspaper bundles, trying to be the first to find her. Once all the figurines were unwrapped and settled into their new scene, they remained there through Christmas, occasionally admired but always untouched.
Fast forward to my young adult years, and over the course of several Christmases, my parents gave my husband and me our own nativity set. Each year we received a few more pieces, beginning with the holy family, and then the angel and the barn, the shepherd, the sheep, the wise men. My infinitely thoughtful mother selected a resin (rather than porcelain) set for us. Although we had no children at the time, she anticipated that the indestructible version might be a better bet, assuming someday eager little hands might wrestle over the newspaper bundles or wiggly little bodies might knock the whole herd of sheep right off the coffee table. She was right, of course.
For a year or two we set up the crèche on the table in the living room in our own home, on display for the month of December, complete except for baby Jesus who would be added to the scene on Christmas morning. Then one year, I decided that the cast of Bethlehem characters need not sit there on the table all month, and that perhaps Mary and Joseph should make their way across our home over the course of Advent, only to arrive manger-side on Christmas Eve. My hope, I think, was simply to bring the story to life a bit in our home. By taking a moment each day to move Mary and Joseph closer to the stable, I created a daily practice of choosing – however briefly – to step out of the chaos of December errands and obligations and into the story of Jesus.
That first year, I documented some of the holy family’s movements and milestones on my Instagram feed, imagining they were on a great and sometimes silly adventure. My friends seemed to enjoy it, and so I did it again the following year. After the second Advent journey on Instagram, I received so much encouragement that I decided to make Mary and Joseph and Donkey their own Instagram account so that more people could follow along. As far as an Instagram account goes, it is terribly run. I have no plan, no strategy, no content calendar, no promotion methods. All that keeps it running is a desire to share the joy I have found in this tradition with a wider audience, to bring a little light into the darkness, a teeny-tiny reflection of the Light that is to come.
While I love sharing this tradition with the Instagram world, I love even more that it has become a delightful tradition in our own home. I love that our nativity is not a simple tableau, tucked in a corner and easily forgotten. My children love discovering what Mary and Joseph are up to each day, and now that they are older, they even provide some (usually crazy) artistic direction. I love imagining the earthly parents of our Savior caught up in the mess of ordinary life – navigating obstacles, asking for directions, exhausted, sometimes annoyed or frustrated, but always bound together in love.
I hope that because of this daily (albeit silly) connection with Mary and Joseph, we hold a bit more space to ponder the story of Jesus’s arrival throughout this month of list-making and cookie-baking and movie-watching. Like the star over Bethlehem, I pray this little daily ritual of slowly approaching the manger helps us to refocus and to fix our gaze on the Christ child. As the holy family wanders across this house, I hope it is a reminder to my family, and to all those following along, that God is with us in every inch of our home and every corner of our lives.
O come, o come, Emmanuel!