By John Dougherty
I love Advent calendars because they can make Advent seem longer. It’s the logic of “a watched pot never boils.” If you want to make time crawl, count every minute. There’s a sacredness in paying attention, and that’s what Advent calendars invite us to do. We savor each step on the road to Bethlehem, remind ourselves each day of what we’re moving towards. They offer us the chance to prepare ourselves, bit by bit, so that we’re ready when we reach the manger.
I’ve had many Advent calendars over the years: cardboard Christmas trees or winter scenes with doors that opened to reveal aluminum-wrapped chocolates or tiny ornaments. But my favorite Advent calendar was a book.
“The Way to the Crib: An Advent Calendar for You to Read and Make,” written by Friedrich Hoffmann with drawings by Reinhard Herrmann, was originally published in German in 1960, then translated into English by Robert Nowell for St. Paul Publications, a Pauline media ministry, in 1989. As the title promises, the book includes 25 paper figures for you to cut out and assemble, one for each day, until you have a fully assembled Nativity scene.
I vividly remember the year we assembled the figures: carefully cutting, folding paper tabs into slots, judiciously applying Scotch tape. There were kings and shepherds and beasts of burden, an angel and a palm tree and a Christmas rose, brought to life through Herrmann’s colorful designs. But what really captivated me were the brief stories that accompanied each figure. I was used to the Nativity as a still life, encountered in full (give or take a baby Jesus, depending on your parish’s feelings about when he appears in the creche). “The Way to the Crib” asked us to assemble the scene piece by piece, considering each character’s story, their hopes and fears.
There were the familiar characters, of course, but also newcomers: a grumpy hedgehog soothed by Christ’s light, the boy who cares for the Magi’s camels, the innkeeper’s daughter who overhears her parents talking and goes to bring the newborn baby a doll. I was always particularly moved by a character named the Sad Shepherd, rendered with hooded eyes and a soft frown. The text tells us that he’s been angry at God since the deaths of his wife and child. When the angel appears over his pastures, it’s not the announcement of a newborn king that stirs him, but the thought of a child born in cold and poverty. He hurries there to offer whatever comfort he can.
Like all stories, these tales invited me to reflect on my own life. What did Christ’s birth mean for me? How could I serve those left out in the cold today? What new hope would be born in my heart?
The finished Nativity became an annual fixture in our living room, and revisiting the stories became a tradition. Last year, I shared it with my children for the first time. “The Way to the Crib” is out-of-print, so we’re using the same beat-up spiral book and somewhat brittle figures from my childhood. Some of the pieces have vanished or torn (one shepherd’s crook was long ago replaced with a plastic straw), but the figures are as striking as ever, and the stories still captivate. Reading it with them each night is a sacred practice, a chance for us to immerse ourselves in the season, in holy waiting.
On Christmas Day, you place the tiny, smiling Christ child in the manger. The text notes how crowded the stable is now with man and beast and angel. “But there’s still one place free,” it says. “It’s for you to come and join in the joy of Christmas at the place where it comes from. So come along: your place is there. Now you too are standing by the crib. And now it is Christmas.”
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John Dougherty is a Catholic writer, high school campus minister and dad based in the Philadelphia area. He writes the weekly Catholic Movie Club column for America magazine. Follow his writing at johndocwrites.com, on Instagram @johndocwrites and X @johndoc23.