The Empty Trough

“Hold on, wait… ok, slow down… just a second, wait!” I feel like my words are a giant, obnoxious, neon sign blaring against our modern Christmastime. I say them over and over again this time of year.

In our house, the nativity gets put out first. Michael and I started collecting pieces to our set the first year we were married and have added a new figure or two every year since. We have been gifted other pieces, including one from Santa one year, and putting it out and setting it up is now a process in of itself. We have the Holy Family, the shepherds and sheep, an entire village including a menacing Roman soldier, the Wise Men and their camels, angels, and even a few trees. The biggest rule, even more than the Wise Men needing to be towards the actual east, is that Baby Jesus cannot be placed in the manager until Christmas morning. It looks unfinished and odd to have Mary and Joseph staring lovingly at an empty trough, but we wait.

As a child, Advent meant getting the wreath out and lighting purple and pink candles. I knew that mom would soon be making gumbo and the smell of chocolate brown roux would fill the house. And more than anything, I had an overwhelming excitement about what gifts I might receive on Christmas morning. Advent meant the countdown was on. The magic would build during those first few weeks of December. The joy nestling down in my heart, the fun filling all of our activities, the singing, the lights, the laughter, and the traditions were all so thrilling. By the time Christmas Eve arrived, we were all so jazzed up there was never a chance my sister and I would sleep.

That is what I yearn for when I want to feel Christmas. I want all of that! I want to feel something real and magical and joyous and light. I want my heart to be expectant and tingly, and I want it for myself.

Over the years my role has changed, from child to adult to wife then mom. The shininess of the traditions has faded; reality tarnishing them. I have learned to make roux in the microwave (yes, it is possible and still just as delicious) so I can recreate the smell, but the gumbo itself is a lot of work. I purchase all the gifts. I organize the calendar making sure we can make all the parties and festivities and find babysitters or not, depending. I make sure we have working lights for the tree, that the house is decorated, that cards go out. I don’t mind it a bit. It is fun, and they are happy things, but I wouldn’t call it “expectant or magical.”

In the beginning years of parenthood, I looked for that expectant magic in my kids. My hope, I think, was that if I could make Christmas what I remembered, and let them experience it and soak in it with them, then I’d feel the joy down deep in my heart again. It worked, almost.

There was still something missing.

One year, I accidentally tried something new. I sat next to the crèche every morning while I had my coffee. I stared at that empty manger. I wanted to put Baby Jesus in his bed. But I knew we were trying to teach the kids something, so I was still, and I waited, and I suddenly understood something differently. While yes, over the years, reality had taken away the overwhelming excitement about gifts and such, those same years had given me perspective and truth about the magic of Christ in my life. Advent changed.

The empty manger has become a reminder to me of the possibilities that lie ahead. Advent has become an odd time, against our modern Christmastime, to internally slow down. If I do, if I pause, I can remember and feel those moments that Christ has been tangibly present. I feel the joy and the lightness. The story is old, but it is every bit as relevant and real as it was 2000 years ago. In some magical way, if I’m aware, and hold on and slow down, Christ will be born in my life. The slowing down allows me to feel it. To feel the tingly expectancy of knowing the goodness of Christ’s birth.

There’s a magic and a joy for us in finally laying Baby Jesus in his manger on Christmas morning, but until then Mary and Joseph stare at an empty trough, and we wait.