“Filling the Manger,” New Era, Dec. 1994, 41
Michael knew that Christmas would not be the same this year. Although everything else would be the same—the manger scene that was always set up on top of the piano, the Christmas tree he and his father would go up in the mountains to cut, the Christmas cookies his mother and younger brothers and sisters would make—it would not be the same this year, because Michael was not the same.
He didn’t know what to do about it.
He had messed up.
He was not as good as everyone thought he was.
He tried not to think about it because it was embarrassing and painful. It made him feel guilty. Nobody else knew about it. And nobody would ever find out.
It had happened on fast Sunday in December. It was during church. His mother asked him to take his two-year-old brother, Zach, out because he was acting up. Out in the hall Zach started playing around where coats were hung up. Zach liked to get down on his hands and knees and crawl through the maze of coats. Somehow in the process Zach pulled a purse off the coatrack and knocked it to the floor. Everything spilled out.
Michael knelt down and started putting things back in the purse. Zach quickly ran away, thinking he was in big trouble. Michael decided to look in the billfold to find out who it belonged to. As he opened the billfold, he saw a stack of five-dollar bills.
Michael looked around, grabbed one of the five-dollar bills and slipped it into his pocket, put everything back in the purse, and put the purse back up on the coat rack.
He got Zach, picked him up, and took him back to sacrament meeting.
And that was it.
He wasn’t even sure why he’d taken the money. He didn’t need it for anything. Of course he liked to play video games at the mall after school, and that’s where the money eventually went, but it wasn’t like an obsession with him or anything.
He wondered if he would ever get caught, and if he were caught, and someone asked him why he’d taken the money, what he would say. He wasn’t sure. There didn’t seem to be any reason. He remembered he’d been upset with his mother because of something she’d said before they left for church, something about his always making them late for church. He tried to imagine telling a policeman, I stole the money because my mother got mad at me for making us late for church.
And now here it was, a Monday night, two weeks before Christmas. Their family had a large manger scene they set out on top of the piano every Christmas Eve. It had been in the family for as long as he could remember. His grandfather, who had died two years earlier, had carved it when his mother was a child. When Michael was a little boy he had been fascinated by the mules and straw and the cow and Mary and Joseph and the little baby Jesus in the wooden manger.
That night his mother asked him to take charge of unpacking the manger. He would unpack each figure and give it to one of his brothers or sisters for them to place on top of the piano. Each figure was wrapped in tissue paper.
Michael used to like this family tradition, but this year for some reason he didn’t feel the same about it. He just wanted to get it over with and get back to his video game.
The box was empty. “Okay, that’s it. Can I go now?” he asked.
“Where’s baby Jesus?” his mother asked. “We haven’t put him out yet.”
He looked through the box, but all he found was tissue paper. “It’s not here,” he said.
“It has to be there. Where else could it be?”
He dumped the contents of the box onto the floor. “I’m telling you it’s not here.”
“How can we have the manger scene without baby Jesus?” his mother asked.
“Look, I don’t know, but I did what you told me to do. I’m finished. I just want to go back to the TV room.”
“Michael, we’ve got to have the baby Jesus for our manger scene, or it won’t mean anything. You’re good with your hands just like your grandfather was. Will you carve us another one?”
“Why can’t we just buy one?”
“It wouldn’t be the right size. Besides your grandfather carved this. He’s not here with us anymore, but you’re good at things like that. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it will mean so much more if someone in our family does it.”
“Oh, all right,” he grumbled.
The next day Michael’s father brought him a carving knife, several blades, and a small piece of fine wood. He laid it on Michael’s bed when he came home from work. Michael pushed it aside and said he was too busy and that he’d wait for school to be out before he began.
Finally at three in the afternoon on Christmas Eve he had run out of excuses and his mother had run out of patience. He decided to start. It doesn’t have to be much, he thought. Just get it done.
He spread old newspapers on the kitchen table and started to rough out the general shape.
An hour later his mother came in to see how he was doing. She put her hand on his shoulder and watched him carve. “You’ve got a gift, Michael, just like your grandfather. You’re so much like him.”
“I’m not anything like him,” Michael said, sounding almost bitter.
“Is everything okay?”
“I don’t know. You’ve seemed kind of grumpy lately.”
“I’m just getting tired of the same old thing every Christmas. Why do we have to have a manger scene anyway?”
“That’s what Christmas is all about.”
“A baby was born in a stable and shepherds came. So what?”
“We don’t celebrate Christmas because a baby was born in a stable and shepherds came. We celebrate Christmas because that baby is the Son of God and the Savior of the world.”
“The world still seems messed up to me.”
“He saves the world one person at a time. He gives us hope. He helps us understand that it’s never too late to begin again. If we’ve made mistakes, if we truly repent we can be forgiven. When that happens, our burden of guilt is lifted. That’s why we celebrate Christmas.”
She knows, he thought.
He quit carving. “Something is wrong with me,” he said.
“Tell me what it is.”
He wiped the beads of sweat from off his forehead.
“Michael, whatever it is, tell me. We can work it out.”
He took a deep breath and said, “I took five dollars from a purse three weeks ago at church.”
“Yes. You knew about it, didn’t you?”
“No, not really. I knew something was wrong though. I just wasn’t sure what. You weren’t acting the same—but I didn’t know what it was.”
“Why did you talk about making mistakes then?”
“Because I make mistakes too. We never outgrow the need for the Savior in our lives.” She paused. “What do you think you should do?”
“I was thinking of waiting until after Christmas and then going to tell the bishop what I did.”
“Is waiting a good idea? It will gnaw at you until you do something.”
“But it’s Christmas Eve. The bishop will be home with his family.”
“Why don’t you see what he says? You’ll enjoy Christmas a lot more if you’ve started resolving this. It’s still early. I don’t think he’d mind if you stopped by.”
“I don’t want Jessica to know what I’ve done.”
“He won’t tell anyone in his family, not his wife, not Jessica, and not his other children. Why not call and see if he’s there?”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Tell him you have a private matter you need to discuss with him.”
Fifteen minutes later Michael walked up to the door. He rang the doorbell. The one thing he dreaded was that Jessica would answer the door and he would have to tell her he needed to talk to her father and she would guess that something was wrong.
But the bishop opened the door, shook his hand, and led him downstairs to an office. Michael could hear family noises from upstairs. They were singing Christmas carols. He could hear Jessica’s voice. She had a beautiful singing voice. He had sung with her in a quartet once for church. He wondered if she would ever talk to him again.
“Three weeks ago I stole five dollars from a purse at church,” he blurted out.
Michael was surprised at the bishop’s reaction. He didn’t say, “How could you do that?” He didn’t order him out of his house. He didn’t call the police and have him thrown in jail. He didn’t tell him he was the worst person in the world. He didn’t tell him never to talk to his daughter Jessica again.
What he did was loan Michael five dollars. And then the two of them drove to the home of the woman who reported that someone had gone through her purse and taken five dollars. She was a widow and the money in her purse was her tithing.
When she opened the door, she smiled and invited them in.
“Are you my new home teachers?” she asked.
“No, not exactly.”
“Would you like some Christmas cookies? My grandchildren sent them.”
“Not right now,” the bishop said. “Michael has something he needs to tell you.”
“I’m the one who took five dollars from your purse,” Michael said quickly.
“Oh, Michael, not you! I never would have thought you would do something like that.”
“I’m really sorry.” He handed her the five-dollar bill the bishop had loaned him. “I came to give you five dollars.”
“Do you need the money, because if you do …”
“No, I don’t need it. I don’t know why I took it.”
“It takes a big man to admit when he’s done wrong.”
“That’s right,” the bishop said. “But it’s only part of repenting. You need to make sure you’ve done all you can and that you’re right with the Lord.”
It was silent for a moment. “Would you like a Christmas cookie now?” the widow asked.
Michael turned away so she wouldn’t see his eyes.
There could be no leaving until they had a Christmas cookie. To Michael the cookie tasted like sawdust. Finally, mercifully, the bishop said all the right things to get them out of there.
The bishop gave him a ride home. “You owe me five dollars,” he said as they pulled into Michael’s driveway.
“I’ll pay you back as soon as I can.”
“What did you use the money for?” the bishop asked.
“Maybe you shouldn’t play video games until you get this taken care of.”
“You and I will need to have a long talk next week about the process of repentance,” the bishop said. “Is that all right with you?”
“Good. But relax, you’ve done the most difficult part today. I’m glad you had the courage to admit you’d done wrong. That’s never easy.” The bishop leaned over and shook his hand. “Merry Christmas, Michael.”
Instead of playing video games or watching TV, Michael spent the rest of Christmas Eve finishing the carving of baby Jesus. He finished at eleven o’clock that night. Everyone else in the family had gone to bed. All the lights were off except a reading light near the piano. Michael gently set the carved figure in the manger and placed a tiny blanket over it. It wasn’t as good as the one his grandfather had made, but to Michael it meant much more.
Two months later they found the original baby Jesus in another box in the basement. But even so, from then on, they always put out the one Michael had carved the year he discovered the true meaning of Christmas.