Family

The Message of the Manger’s Animals

Those trusting creatures (then and now) have much to teach moms, dads, and kids

Manger scenes are like magnets: They draw people in. It is almost impossible for families to stand in front of a manger at Christmas without feeling a reverent awe at the miracle, wrought from meager beginnings, that so changed mankind.

The story is familiar and comforting. The lack of space at the inn for the Holy Family that wondrous night reminds us that even if we feel inconvenient, unworthy of attention, or just plain desperate — there is still a plan for us, written in the stars. We matter — and we are known.

The animals accepted the Prince of Peace without a stir and at face value, the way animals do.

The baby Jesus represented in mangers around the world may be made of porcelain, wood, or clay — but He always seems immediate and personal. His vulnerable little inner circle — parents, shepherds, and wise men drawn by a star — were living out the biggest event known to man, a birth that allowed God to walk among us.

Each person that night was going on faith. Mary and Joseph were probably scared and uncertain while making a bed in the straw for their child. The shepherds had no idea what was happening until an angel reassured them. The Wise Men were following a star to honor a great king. But what kind of king?

They did not know. They just prepared for the journey and made their way.

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Related: Why the Wise Men Still Inspire

I have always felt that the animals in the manger story seem at peace, unruffled by the events of Christmas Eve. They accepted the Prince of Peace and his contingency without a stir and at face value, the way animals do.

In our home, we have a wooden manger that my husband’s grandfather made many years ago. He built it, stained it, and added a lightbulb. Every year it sits in our dining room, waiting to be filled by my three sons on Christmas eve with our old and treasured figurines of the Holy Family.

The other evening I was shutting down the house — turning out lights, checking the fireplace to make sure all embers were out — when I walked by the manger. I stopped, shook my head, and looked at it twice.

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A faithful interloper (photo: Deirdre Reilly)

Our big cat Cody had squeezed herself into the manger, and was fast asleep. The manger was empty and waiting, Cody saw her opportunity — and she took it. I still don’t know how she fit in there. She’s pretty tubby, and she had to walk over and around a few fake pine trees, a camel or two, and a little porcelain lamb, poised at the manger doorway.

Cody was sleeping in the dim glow of the lightbulb, on the bed of hay I had arranged on the manger floor. She was sure of her safety, and comforted by the dimensions of the simple space.

When I pulled my phone out of my pocket to take her picture, Cody woke up and stared at me peacefully, blinking a few times. Her look said, “Yes, I am sleeping here. It was available, so I took it.”

May we all carry the calm of the manger animals with us this Christmas.

Just what the Holy Family thought, thousands of years ago. And the animals around them were no doubt comforting, and provided warmth and maybe even a sense of safety.

Perhaps a cow or a sheep or two wandered over and smelled the new little bundle asleep in the hay, and Mary gently pushed them back with a whispered word.

The animals didn’t know any better — they were not afraid or worried. They accepted.

I am going to try, in the hustle and bustle of this week, to be more like Cody. To relax with no questions, no worries. To simply “let it be.”

May we all carry a bit of manger animals with us this Christmas.

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