Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
Most of my family’s Advent/Christmas traditions are complete. My wife and I love the wintery foods, Christmas markets, and making Vin Brule (or, Gluwein in other parts of Europe). We have special family traditions for St. Nicholas’s feast day, as well as St. Lucia in December. The whole family comes together for the Jesse Tree each evening, also accompanied by a family Advent calendar each year. But it does often seem as though, much as we try to remember that Christmas begins on Christmas—everything before it being Advent—the traditions become fewer after Dec. 25, especially for the kiddos.
But this year I discovered a fun new tradition to continue the celebration of Jesus Christ, while also educating the kids on the salvific story and timeline. Maybe you’ve heard of this, but in case you haven’t, I wanted to share with you and your family.
And it’s pretty simple: all you need is what you likely already have: a manger scene with the three wise men.
Now, first separate the three wise men. If you had them present on Christmas day, I hate to sound ungentle, but you made a small mistake. I mean to be gentle, but what the tradition says is that the kings did not visit Jesus until later, after he was born. It helps our faith on Christmas to see the nativity scene, but the story is prolonged—not everyone in the traditional manger scene was there at the same time. For example, the kings were not guided by the angels, usually present in nativity depictions, too.
It’s evident in the Bible, though it might have been glossed over. (it was for me!) Check out Matthew chapter 2:
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.”
Even though the magi were informed that the new king may be found in Bethlehem, and read the scroll of the prophet Micah, it still required several treacherous days to reach the town. Even with the most reasonably expedited timelines, it would have taken days or even weeks to reach the Christ child after his birth. By the way, did you notice that the Bible never specifies three kings? The scriptures only clarify three gifts and multiple kings. But, gratefully, we have a prominent record of their relics, yes the bones of these three kings. They rest behind the high altar of Cologne Cathedral.
Therefore, on Christmas, my family separates the three kings. This is the “new tradition” my wife found this year, so here’s where you want to start paying attention. We place them somewhere in the house or the room (where the nativity is located), and each day, they move closer and closer to the nativity. Each day the kids discover they have moved, and the idea that they were on a mission begins to click. My kids started asking several questions about the nativity and the magi, which is really what every parent wants to get from this fun tradition: help your kids understand the entire season and the whole story, rather than lumping them all into one huge gift-opening extravaganza on Christmas morning, and then leaving them empty of purpose during the remaining days of Christmas.
This tradition of moving the magi a little toward the nativity of Jesus each day consummates with the magi reaching the child Jesus and presenting him with gifts on the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6, which the the purpose of that feast day. In some parts of the world, kids are given a small gift, topping off the Christmas season all while observing the liturgy, the biblical narrative, and keeping wholesome family traditions. Which is more than “elf on a shelf” ever did.