Even for those of us who do not celebrate the mainstream culture’s religion, today I offer a lovely ritual that you can share with your loved ones tonight, regardless of spirituality or tradition.
Sarah Ban Breathnach, one of my favorite writers, mystics and teachers, offers her Christmas Eve observance – the Nativity tray. The Nativity tray is a reminder of the Christian story of a homeless couple two thousand years ago, who would have been lost, if not for the kindly charity of “an ordinary, harried, exhausted woman [who] stopped long enough to feel her heart tug.”
Sarah continues, “Legend has it that on the night of the Nativity, whosoever ventures out into great snows bearing a succulent bone for a lost and lamenting hound, a wisp of hay for a shivering horse, a warm cloak for a stranded wayfarer, a garland of bright berries for one who has worn chains, a dish of crumbs for all huddled birds who thought their song was dead, and sweetmeats for little children who peer from lonely windows — whosoever prepares this simply abundant tray, ‘shall be proffered and returned gifts of such an astonishment as will rival the hues of the peacock and the harmonies of heaven.’”
So she suggests that, like she does every year, you might take down a tray, line it with cloth, and place on it a big juicy bone from your holiday dinner (or specially purchased from the butcher), a bowl of cat food, hay, a warm, gently used coat, a string of berries, a dish of fresh bread crumbs and sunflower seeds, and a plate of Christmas candy.
You might add more practical food for humans, also. Because if you slip out the door into the freezing cold tonight, to leave your tray on the street where it may be found, you will find it is impossible not to think of the homeless.
In 1997, the Department of Health and Human Services estimated that on any given day, about 600,000 men, women and children were homeless in America. Since the deep economic downturn of recent years, we know that number has increased dramatically. In fact, a current report from the National Center on Family Homelessness states that one in 50 kids in America experiences homelessness.
We see these men, women and children, and our hearts ache for them, but what can we do to help? There is lots we can do.
For tonight, let us begin with this small act of love. It is certainly not going to ease the problem, or turn the tide, but it is a start, a consciousness-raising exercise of magic and intention. With it, how can you not make a promise to help more in the days ahead?
And having made that promise, then I hope you really will keep it.
Sarah writes, “I started preparing the Nativity tray because an almost palpable mysticism seemed to surround the legend. I was also very interested in the promise of astonishing gifts to rival the harmonies of heaven. Every year when I go out on Christmas morning to collect the tray, many of the offerings are gone. One year, even the coat. For all I know, I’m the squirrels’ Santa Claus. But it does give me happy pause, wondering whose Christmas dreams came true.
“And the astonishing gifts to rival heaven? Everywhere I look. But the best one is that now I can truly see them.”
from Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach. Copyright © 1995 by Sarah Ban Breathnach.