Over the years, Christmas has snuck up on us from time to time—but not this year. This year it’s been staring at us like a massive neon billboard aimed directly at the house that reads “Christmas Is Coming and You Can’t Avoid it if You Tried.” I’ll admit, as Christmas with Grant in Heaven has been approaching day by day, I’ve waffled between dread, indifference, fear, and disbelief. How bad will it be? I’ve read enough of other grieving parents’ stories by now to know to be braced. Our deep sadness isn’t about where he is, but about where’s he’s supposed to be right now and isn’t—with us. By no choice of our own, Christmas is going to be different from now on.

Before you start to think my grief is triggering me do some Santa-bashing writing, hold on. Santa visited our house in the past few years, too. You should know, though, Grant figured out when he was three years old there was no Santa. He put me on the spot at bedtime one night. Standing on his bed facing me, he looked me in the eyes and said, “Daddy is Santa Claus really real?” Grant had me cornered. I couldn’t lie to him, but came clean and told him that he was right. Santa wasn’t real. My admission didn’t seem to faze him, likely because his question to me was just a matter of gathering a second opinion. He had already formulated his own idea, which was typical for his little brain. We agreed it could be exciting to pretend Santa was real and we could do that for fun as long as he’d like. Grant liked that idea and so it continued. From then on, Grant would look up at me and give a knowing smile and sometimes a wink when we strolled passed a Santa at the mall.

It wasn’t but a month or so after we lost Grant that gobs of Christmas paraphernalia hit the shelves in most big box stores. We’ve been dealing with that kind of Christmas for a few months now. More than ever it’s noticeable that there are two categories of Christmas. Big surprise, huh? The many holiday choices seem like a bunch of irrelevant shiny decorations, fast lights of any color I’d want to use to don a tree, mass-produced figurines and glittery sundries made in China (no offense to the Chinese), inflatable lawn ornaments that pop up, wave, or dance. I’ve known this difference in Christmases for most of my life. There’s the commercialized Christmas that starts blending with the Halloween aisle as summer winds down into fall and then Christ’s birth, of course, is the other kind of Christmas—the real Christmas that gets less attention. If you get caught in a spending frenzy, just remember “manger” and not “store manager” and you’ll be able to keep it straight.

Carolynne has helped plan the special Christmas Eve service at our church for several years. Her gifts truly shine through designing worship and the sensitivity she has to God leading that process is obvious. Two years ago, the focus was on the gift of Christ, how Christ cares for sinners, how He isn’t unpredictable or finicky and how He offers Himself to us as a gift. But, the world can be cautious of something so simple or feel a bit guarded when considering it because of other life experiences that have spoiled an ability to trust.

That year, it was decided the day before Christmas Eve that a manger was needed for the service, so Grant and I volunteered to build one. We had twenty-four hours to get the job done. We went to a local wood shop store, but it was a little high-end. I’m no theologian, but I was sure the manger that held the baby King wasn’t made of costly imported burled walnut. Keeping with the simplicity of the Christmas story, I asked if they had any discarded scraps around somewhere. The clerk took Grant and me to a dusty corner of the store and told us to watch our footing as we navigated steps down to their basement where I had to duck and Grant was the right size for the low ceiling. There we found stacks of boards, different shapes and sizes---and cheap. I don’t even recall that they charged us for carrying off their leftovers. That sure fit our budget well. Grant and I sorted out a stack of short lumber that we thought would work for constructing a manger. We threw our boards in the back of the Jeep, along with a pint of antique walnut satin wood stain we splurged on so the manger wouldn’t look like a scouting project gone bad, and off to our basement we went to start building.

I sawed, Grant “hammered,” and I drilled. Grant wore his bright yellow construction worker hat and was a terrific helper. We got walnut stain all over us and our concrete basement floor, but made a manger in record time. We looked at it, but it didn’t seem complete and time was running out. I taught Grant the word remnant, and introduced him to the fabric store close to my office. We found some swatches of blue silk and burlap that made for perfect swaddling clothes and padding for our plain manger. It was an opportunity to teach Grant first-hand and remind myself all over again that Christ was born without a dime to His name. He had nothing fancy, His accommodations weren’t elaborate, and His parents did the best they could to find a place for Him to be born. They made do with what had been provided to them. The world Jesus was born into then was not as comfortable as the world we live in now.

I spend quiet and reflective time walking in Mt. Auburn Cemetery now. On the opposite side of the cemetery where I spend most of my time is the grave of Phillips Brooks. If you’re like me, his name is one you probably don’t recognize. Phillips Brooks was an Episcopal priest known for his strong leadership, but he is probably best known for having penned the words for O, Little Town of Bethlehem in 1865. After walking by his grave yesterday in the sloppy snow, I was inspired to look closely at each of the words in the traditional carol once I got home. These following words stood out to me, particularly as the manger is more relevant to Carolynne and me than ever before this season.

Oh holy child of Bethlehem!
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.

As I read those words, my memories of Grant and me building the manger, and the stain on our skin that initially seemed permanent, but then wore away clean, collided all at once. In short, Brooks’ words represent the gospel message in the briefest way I’ve ever read. Clean us up and come into our hearts. The last line—Be born in us today—is a beautiful way of plainly saying, “Jesus, let me be your manger. Be born in me.” Just like the manger Grant and I built, your heart doesn’t have to be perfect or fancy. It doesn’t need to be impressive or grand. In fact, it’s fine if your manger actually does look like a scouting project gone badly. Your heart just needs to be a modest, plain place where Christ can be born and live. Be His manger.

We sincerely appreciate your texts, emails and calls of encouragement more than you'll ever know. We miss Grant at Christmastime no more than we do every other day. Please continue to pray for Carolynne and me and for all of us to be Christ’s manger daily.

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