(RNS) — When Allison Hottinger and Lisa Kalberer’s children were small, the sisters had no trouble coming up with ways to make the Christmas season feel magical for them. What was more difficult, Kalberer said, was making it feel meaningful.
That is, until Hottinger remembered an unusual holiday decoration she’d seen at a friend’s house when she was a little girl: a small wooden manger. When she asked about it, her friend told her that whenever her family did something kind, they added a piece of straw to the manger.
The sisters, who were raised in a Christian home, searched stores and the internet but couldn’t find anything like it. So they created their own.
“It is a constant stream of messages from people with little tiny kids who thank us for just having something that’s focused on the real meaning of Christmas,” Kalberer said.
“They’re able to have really sweet and wonderful conversations about Christ and about the real reason we celebrate because they’re not just focused on Santa or elves or things like that. They’re talking about Christ’s life, and they’re talking about his example, and those are the things that just bring us to tears.”
The Giving Manger wasn’t an immediate hit with the sisters’ kids, though, she recalled.
Hottinger’s husband created the first manger in their garage. Hottinger bought straw for it from a craft store.
When they presented it to their five children, they were less than enthused.
So Hottinger started by doing small acts of kindness for them, placing a piece of straw in the manger when she put their shoes away or picked up their toys. Pretty soon, they joined in, wanting to create a soft bed for the clay baby Jesus they placed inside on Christmas Day.
When friends and neighbors began asking for something similar, Hottinger and Kalberer launched a Kickstarter for a boxed set that includes a small wooden manger, a clay Jesus and about 50 pieces of straw, as well as a picture book, titled “The Giving Manger,” that explains the tradition, with illustrations by artist Emily King.
The 2015 crowdfunding campaign reached its $15,000 goal in just 72 hours, Kalberer said.