So often, I hear people say to their children, “If you’re good, then Santa Claus will bring you something for Christmas.” I’ve probably been guilty of saying it myself. Personally, though, I’ve never found it to be a great motivator, especially for small children, who are all about immediate gratification. When I was young, my parents came up with a way to elicit good behavior during Advent, while at the same time teaching us about what our true motivation should be for said behavior.
At the beginning of Advent, we were each given a handmade wooden manger. Each day, for every good deed we did, we received a piece of straw to put in our mangers (A little bit of instant gratification and a teaser for what would be coming later). Early on, we had been taught how much Jesus loves us, and so now we were to give what we had received by acting as Jesus would act. The mangers were a visible sign of the preparation of our hearts that was supposed to be taking place. The more acts of love performed, the softer the bed for Jesus when he came at Christmas, and the softer our hearts to receive Him.
So now, I can say to my kids, “If you’re good, you can get lots of straw in your manger and make a soft bed for the Baby Jesus.” And they will experience the same sense of excitement that I felt as a child on Christmas Eve, when they set the manger next to their beds, knowing that when they awake, the baby Jesus will be there. I still remember that being the first thing I checked on Christmas morning, even before the stockings and the presents. Kids may not intellectually grasp the full significance of what they are doing, but they take it all in and are intuitively attracted to things of spiritual significance. I loved this tradition as a child, and my own kids love it, too.