Advent for the Catholics is the four Sundays before Christmas. (If you’re a Catholic, this year it’s November 28th through December 25th.) Back at our school with the Sisters of St. Dominic, the four weeks of Advent started off with the most important tradition of all: getting the crib ready for the Baby Jesus.
First, we needed to get a cardboard shoe box.
Shoe boxes were special at any time of year. We didn’t buy new shoes too often, not when there was always some kid on the street with bigger feet and we could wait for him to outgrow his shoes and then we could wear them. When we did have a shoe box in the house, our mothers used them to sort S&H Green Stamp booklets or recipe cards or nuts & bolts, and they tied up the boxes with red and white bakery cake box string and made neat labels and stacked them in the cabinet. Even when we did have extra boxes, we kids used them up for crafts right away. For example, you can turn a shoe box on its side so that the top long side makes a ceiling and roof. Then paint the inside blue, glue in some stones, cut out and color paper fishes and plants, hang them on strings to the ceiling side of the box, then tape a sheet of clear plastic wrap over the front. That turns the box into an aquarium, only these fish won’t die after you bring them home.
But shoe boxes were extra handy in Advent, an important time for an important project.
Step 1. The first day of Advent, get in line and follow Sister across the parking lot to church to examine our conscience. It’s always nice to sit there being perfectly silent so we can hear what God might say to us and gives Sister a minute to rest her feet in some peace and quiet.
Step 2. On the way home from school, go to Mr. C.’s shoe store and ask him for any empty boxes. Irving’s Pharmacy next door, with the big glass jars of color dye water in the window, they have boxes too. But we’re not allowed to go into Irving’s Pharmacy because it has one of those modern heavy glass doors, and our moms say we can get our fingers stuck in the door when it closes. But Mr. C. has the right boxes and he has just the screen door, so we’re allowed in there. If he’s not busy with a customer we can put a penny in the gumball machine while we are at it.
Step 3. Think up ideas for new good deeds to add to our life ever day. Like, the very first time Mom calls, run right home for supper or get up for school. Then set the table or make the bed. Carry your plate to the sink and say thank you. If you notice that the wash is dry, take it off the clothesline and fold it up and pick up the clothespins out of the grass. Finish your bread crusts. Say a decade of the rosary every night. Let Dad read the funny papers first because you make Silly Putty prints out of the faces in the comics.
Step 4. After dinner, sit at the kitchen table with a notepad and ruler and pencil. Draw 12 boxes. Then, fill each box by writing in one of your good intentions. Next, cut up the paper to make 12 squares. Put them in an envelope. Use another page or so to write and cut out one square or more for every day of Advent.
Step 5. Decorate your box with crayons or a little colored paper. But don’t be all showy about it. Like, don’t go paint a lot of macaroni shells gold and then glue them on, because Jesus was very poor as a baby and did not have a wealthy bed. And besides, the outside of the box doesn’t matter. What matters is the inside later at the end of your four weeks.
Step 6. Now the real project starts. Every day, pick a good intention paper slip out of the envelope and then work on your good intention. At the end of each day, if you finished your good deed, take that slip of paper and put it inside the shoe box crib. Don’t show or talk about your good deed; it should be a secret between you and God.
Step 7. Every day, carry out another good deed, and put each paper slip in the box. At the end of Advent, if you counted right, the envelope is empty and the box is full of good deed paper slips.
Step 8. At the end of Advent, put the lid on the box and fasten it down with rubber bands from the rubber band ball in the kitchen drawer. Take it to school on the bus.
Step 9. At school, take off the lid and everybody put their boxes under the little fake tree next to the Nativity scene that has all the figures looking at the empty manger. At the end of Advent all of the children’s boxes are full of paper slips! That means each box and all 4 Sundays of Advent were full of good deeds for our families and homes and neighborhood and school. They make the boxes into a soft warm manger bed for Baby Jesus. Then even in wintertime the Baby knows He is welcome in this world.
But most of all, the real welcome and the real soft warm place for Him is the change inside our hearts.
About the photo above: This is a very sweet and very thoughtful Nativity present. (The picture does not show how pretty it really is.) I’ve been sad for days, missing the Advent traditions from long ago. But then out of the blue my lovely neighbor gave me this woodcut picture! It is so much better than any shoe-box aquarium I ever made, and such a kind cheering gift, that I want to keep it on my windowsill to look at all year long. Thank you dear! Joyous Feast!