Being born into a Catholic family, traditional stories and rituals played a significant role in forming this human’s dream of the world—and of birth. Among my favorite memories as child in a Catholic family was an elaborate Advent tradition my mother invented for us.
Advent means “the coming.” For Catholics, Advent, which technically begins on November 11, is a kind of Lent allowing for six-weeks of reflection and preparation for the birth of Christ. Most Catholics think of it as beginning four Sundays before Christmas.
On the first day of Advent, my mother brought out a rustic handmade manger build of wood scraps and placed it on the white fleece. Next to this was a small basket of hay. Our Advent ritual began.
When did the tradition of the manager begin? St. Francis created the first manger scene in 1223 in Greccio, Italy. To appreciate his intention, consider how for centuries, the Mass and stories from the Bible were told in Latin but most people did not understand Latin and were illiterate. To bring the Nativity story to life for his followers, St. Francis created a manger scene-come-to-life with straw, an ox, ass, and a crib for the Infant made of wax. Two people in costumes enacted the roles of Mary and Joseph. In front of this live-Nativity, illuminated by candles and torches, St. Francis said Christmas Mass. He wept with joy as he told the story of the Babe of Bethlehem. People were so moved, they took a piece of straw home with them. Soon the tradition of making manger scenes spread and is practiced to this day.
Before our miniature manger in our small home in Michigan, we enacted a solemn, annual Nativity ritual. Every evening before bedtime, my mother gathered my three sisters and I in front of the manger. We had to reflect on whether we were “good” that day, and with our conscience as our guide, if we were, we placed a piece of straw in the manger in preparation for keeping Baby Jesus warm.
Our nightly ritual of placing single strands of straw on the manger floor went on for two to three weeks. None of the figurines were brought out until they appeared in the telling of the next part of the great story. One of us had the honor of placing the Angel with the great white wings and gold halo above the manger. Another child hung the bright Star in the sky. One by one, the animals were set inside: the ox, sheep, chickens, a donkey. As the nights passed, three shepherds bringing gifts of cheese and blankets, and their sheep were arranged walking toward the manger. On Christmas Eve, Mary and Joseph, their donkey, and the empty crib were placed in the center of the manger.
On Christmas morning, we would rush to the manger to see if the miracle had happened again. Our month-long ritual allowed us to anticipate and participate in making room in our hearts and minds for the birth of Jesus. Swathed in the innocence of childhood, we were delighted and mystified to see Baby Jesus lying in his crib. Never mind realizing Santa Claus wasn’t real; the dawning that my mother placed Jesus in the manger (and not angels or God) was a bittersweet threshold out of the magical imagination of childhood, but even still, it was a tradition we loved. And the ritual continued until January 6, when we looked forward to placing one of the Three Kings bearing gifts and their camels. We embodied the teaching of living a life that was a gift to Baby Jesus.
The magnificent story of the Nativity was my first birth story; it instilled in me a trust in birth. As a child I believed if the mother of Jesus can ride a donkey for days and give birth in a humble manger by herself, women must be tough and brave, and childbirth must be doable. The Nativity almost certainly played a role in my life’s work as a home birth midwife, mentor, and storyteller. As an adult, my over-simplified beliefs about what it means to be brave and strong in birth have become more nuanced. My views of birth have matured as I’ve gathered evidence-based information and firsthand experience combined with spiritual teachings.
For children of many faiths and cultures around the world, learning the mystical birth stories of founding teachers and about goddesses of birth may leave profound felt-impressions that can nurture their spiritual preparation for this rite of passage even as the world is increasingly focused on the growing body of scientific knowledge.
Tomorrow I will share more about First Birth Stories to help you contemplate the powerful influence of the story before the story.