It was another long, winter afternoon with everyone 1)stuck in the house and the four McDonald children were at it again—2)bickering, teasing, fighting over their toys. At times like these, Mother was almost ready to believe that her children didn’t love each other, though she knew that wasn’t really true. All brothers and sisters fight, of course, but lately her little lively bunch had been particularly horrible to each other, especially Eric and Kelly, who were just a year apart. They seemed determined to spend the whole winter making each other miserable.
“3)Gimme that. It’s mine!”
“Is not, 4)fatso! I had it first!”
Mother sighed as she listened to the latest argument coming from the living room. With Christmas only a month away, the McDonald house seemed sadly lacking in Christmas spirit. This was supposed to be the season of sharing and love, of warm feelings and happy hearts. A home needed more than just pretty packages or twinkling lights on the tree to fill it with the Christmas spirit. But how could any mother convince her children that being kind to each other was the most important way to get ready for Christmas.
Mother had only one idea. Years ago her grandmother had told her about an old Christmas custom that helped people discover the real meaning of Christmas. Perhaps it would work for her family. It was worth a try. Mother gathered her four little 5)rascals together and sat them down on the stairs, smallest to tallest—Mike, Randi, Kelly and Eric.
“How would you kids like to start a new Christmas project this year?” she asked. “It’s like a game, but it can only be played by people who can keep a secret. Can everyone here do that?”
“I can!” shouted Eric, wildly waving his arm in the air.
“I can keep a secret better than he can,” yelled Kelly, jumping up and waving her arm in the air, too. If this was a contest, she wanted to make sure she beat Eric.
“I can do it!” chimed in Randi, not quite sure what was happening but not wanting to be left out.
“Me too, me too, me too,” squealed little Mike, bouncing up and down.
“Well then, here’s how the game works,” Mother explained. “This year we’re going to surprise Baby Jesus when he comes on Christmas Eve by making him the softest bed in the world. We’re going to build a little crib for him to sleep in right here in our house, and we’ll fill it with straw to make it comfortable. But here’s the 6)catch: Each piece of straw we put in the 7)manger will represent one kind thing we do for someone between now and Christmas. The more kind things we do, the more straw there will be for Baby Jesus. The secret part is—we can’t tell anyone what good things we’re doing and who we’re doing them for.”
The children looked confused. “How will Baby Jesus know it’s his bed?” asked Kelly.
“He’ll know,” said Mother. “He’ll recognize it by the love we’ve put into the crib, by how soft it is.”
“But who will we do the kind things for?” asked Eric.
“It’s simple,” said Mother. “We’ll do them for each other. Once every week between now and Christmas, we’ll put all of our names in this hat, mine and Daddy’s too. Then we’ll each draw a name and do kind things for that person for a whole week. But here’s the hard part. We can’t tell anyone whose name we’ve drawn for that week, and we’ll each try to do as many favors as we can for our special person without getting caught. And for every secret good thing we do, we’ll put another piece of straw in the crib.”
“But what if I pick someone I don’t like?” frowned Kelly.
Mother thought about that for a minute. “Maybe you could use extra fat straws for the good things you do for that person, because they might be harder to do. But just think how much faster the fat straws will fill up our crib. Then on Christmas Eve we’ll put Baby Jesus in his little bed, and he’ll sleep that night on a mattress made of love. I think he’d like that, don’t you?”
“Now, who will build the crib for us?” she asked.
Since Eric was the oldest, and the only one of the children allowed to use tools, he marched off to the basement to give it a try. For the next couple of hours loud banging and sawing noises came from the basement. Then for a long time there were no noises at all. Finally Eric climbed back up the stairs with the manger in his arms. “Here it is,” he grinned. “The best crib in the world! And I did it all myself.” For once, everyone agreed: the little manger was the best crib in the world. It had been built with love—and about a hundred bent nails—and it would certainly last a long time.
“Now we need some straw,” said Mother, and together they headed out to the car to go searching for some in the nearby fields. At last they spotted a small vacant patch of land that had been covered with tall grass in summer. Now, in mid-November, the grass had dried down to yellow stalks that looked just like real straw. Mother stopped the car and the kids scrambled out to pick handfuls of the long grass.
“That’s enough!” Mother finally laughed, when she saw that the cardboard box in the trunk was almost overflowing. So home they went, where they spread the straw carefully on a tray Mother had put on the kitchen table. The empty manger was placed gently on top.
“When can we pick names!” shouted the children.
“As soon as Daddy comes home for dinner,” Mother answered.
At the supper table that night, the six names were written on separate pieces of paper, folded up and 8)shuffled around in an old baseball hat. Then the drawing began. Kelly picked first and immediately started to giggle. Randi reached into the hat next. Daddy glanced at his scrap of paper and smiled quietly. Mother picked out a name, but her face never gave away a clue. Next, little Mike reached into the hat, but since he couldn’t read yet, Daddy had to whisper in his ear and tell him which name he had picked. Eric was the last to choose, and as he unfolded his piece of paper a frown crossed his face. But he stuffed the name in his pocket and said nothing. The family was ready to begin. The week that followed was filled with surprises. It seemed the McDonald house had suddenly been invaded by an army of invisible 9)elves, and good things were happening everywhere. Kelly would walk into her room at bedtime and find her little blue nightgown neatly laid out and her bed 10)turned down. Someone cleaned up the sawdust under the workbench without being asked. The jelly 11)blobs disappeared magically from the kitchen counter after lunch one day while Mother was getting the mail. And every morning, while Eric was brushing his teeth, someone crept quietly into his room and made his bed. It wasn’t made perfectly, but it was made. Mother noticed other changes during that week, too. The children weren’t teasing or fighting as much. An argument would start and then suddenly stop for no good reason. Even Eric and Kelly seemed to be getting along better. In fact, all the children wore secret smiles and giggled to themselves at times.
By Sunday, everyone was anxious to pick new names again, and this time there was even more laughter and 12)merriment during the picking process, except for Eric. Once again he unfolded his paper, looked at it, and stuffed it in his pocket without a word. Mother noticed, but said nothing.
(To be continued.)