Allison Hottinger, Lisa Kalberer, and ‘The Giving Manger’ (Part 2)

John FarrellBy John Farrell17 Minutes

John Farrell: What are some acts of kindness and/or service that are easy to do, but people often overlook?

Allison Hottinger: We have lists and free printables in the back of the book of simple things that you can do. We have things like: hold the door open for as many people as you can that day. At Christmas time, it could be buying a $5 poinsettia at Walmart. Sometimes we buy a couple and drop them off on some doorsteps. It can be people you know or complete strangers. We just ring the doorbell and run. What joy people feel when they open their door and see that someone left something for them.

It can be writing a note to people in nursing homes who aren’t getting a lot of contact. Have your little kids draw a picture, or if you’re an adult, write a letter and just drop it by, or mail them to us and we’ll get them to a nursing home.

It’s like Lisa said—it’s smiling at someone at the grocery store, passing out a candy cane if it’s the Christmas season. It’s just those little moments of showing people that you see them and that they matter.

The one really cool thing that Lisa and I are blown away by, last Christmas season, is if every “Giving Manger” that’s out there has been filled—all of the pieces of straw are placed in those “Giving Mangers”—that means 5 million acts of kindness were done last Christmas season alone. Knowing that there are that many people out there banding together to try to shift the focus of Christmas back to giving in Jesus is better than we could have ever imagined.

Giving Is Not Just for Christmas

JF: How does The Giving Manger apply to people’s lives all year round and not just during the Christmas season?

Lisa Kalberer: A little bit on what I touched on before is when you spend an entire month where you, as a family, decide to take on this challenge—trying to fill the manger with all this kindness and love—I think that is something that when you spend an entire month focusing on, that carries into the year. It carries into your life. It becomes a part of how you think.

We were raised this way. Our parents led by example and were always taking opportunities to help others. Our mom has the most giving heart of anyone—our dad, too. They are so good at seeing people’s needs and taking action.

When someone has a crisis in their life—a death, an illness, or anything—the first thing people say to you is, “What can I do?” We went through this this year. My husband had to have two stems put in his heart. It was so lovely to receive kind messages from people. People say to you over and over again, “What can I do?” But when you’re in a time of crisis, you are just surviving. You are just getting through the day. It’s taking that extra step of doing something. You don’t have to be asked.

The whole purpose for us with The Giving Manger was to get our kids to be the ones who were coming up with the ideas. We didn’t want to be, “Okay, today we’re going to do this. Today, we’re going to do that.” First, we did that. We led by example, but then pretty soon our kids were the ones who wanted to do things.

A funny story about my son is we were traveling. Our family lives all over, and we were heading up north to see my husband’s family. We had some boxes of candy canes at the house and he said, “Mom, let’s grab those and give them out at the airport.” I was like, “Great idea. Perfect.”

We get there and he grabs the candy canes out of my bag and starts handing them out to all the workers, like the people at the Delta desk. He’s handing them to all these different people and I was like, “Dude, I didn’t know you were going to give them to those people.” He said, “Mom, they’re working so hard so that we can travel home and see our family. If they weren’t working, we couldn’t do that. They’re not able to be with their families right now.” I just could not believe his heart. It was amazing to me that he took that kind of initiative to see those people. And not just little kids.

He walked around the whole day handing out candy canes to people like the guy changing the garbage and the gate agent. It was amazing, and it was the least stressful travel day I’ve ever had in my life because all day we focused on all of these people working so hard. It’s so stressful and people are so mean to them, and we chose to be the ones that brought light to their lives.

He’s the one that came up with it. Not me. That never would’ve even occurred to me. I’m embarrassed to say. That’s really what the ultimate goal is—to have them be the ones who lead it. People were astounded by this small thing he did. I really believe that it is often the smallest thing that you do for people. It doesn’t take a lot; it just takes action. You just have to do something.

Simple as Prayer

JF: Do families have to do this every day or is it meant to be a reminder to try and do something as often as possible?

Allison: It’s definitely just a reminder to do things whenever you can. There will be days that I’ll have one kid put five pieces of straw in the manger, and then they may go four days where they’re not thinking about it. But that’s the beautiful thing about the actual manger.

We tell people to put it somewhere central in your home, like your kitchen table or coffee table, so that when you walk past it you’re like, “Oh yeah, I want to try to think of others.”

One thing we encourage in our own home is that one really simple act of kindness is praying for someone. That alone deserves putting a piece of straw in the manger. The interesting thing we found with our kids is we’ve taught them to pray for others, but then also pray to be able to see opportunities to help. That has become a habit. Even though that’s something we taught them in “Giving Manger” season it goes on after the Christmas season is over and now that’s in their heart. That “I want to pray for ways to see that I can help people today.” So, it really has carried forward. The simple act of praying for others has changed their little hearts and it’s been so fun to watch.

It’s What’s Inside That Counts

JF: What is included in The Giving Manger box set?

Allison: It includes the book. It’s a story, but it also provides an explanation of how to use the “Giving Manger.” You get your wooden manger that we say to place somewhere visible in your home. Then it comes with a bundle of straw, and we tell families to work together.

Each act of kindness someone does, they get to place a piece of straw in the manger. We work together all Christmas season to try to fill it and then our favorite moment is coming together on Christmas day and placing the baby Jesus, who also comes with it. We place Him in the manger that we filled with service and love this year.

JF: Have you ever had more straw than the manger could handle?

Allison: It’s the perfect amount to have that manger nice and full. We have had years where it’s like three days before Christmas and our manger is not as full as we would like it to be and it actually becomes really fun because it almost becomes like this giving frenzy and everyone’s trying to find ways. It honestly makes those three days before Christmas even more special as we try to use each piece of straw to create as soft a bed as we can.

JF: Could you please tell me about the illustrations in the book and what makes them so special?

Lisa: As soon as I started writing the book, I had an artist – her name is Emily King – who actually does hand-cut paper illustrations. This is all hand-done. She cuts out paper and then places them on top of each other so the book almost has a little bit of a 3-D effect. You want to touch it because you can see that it’s paper-cut.

There’s one page in the book that is our very favorite. It’s in the middle of the book, and it is a picture of the nativity. You have Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the manger, and everything there – the angel and the star. It is so beautiful that I think everyone would want to hang it in their house. I actually have a copy of it, just that page, that we hang in our home at Christmas because it’s just so beautiful. Her work is incredible.

Kindness: A Family Affair

JF: What are some of your favorite acts of kindness or service that you’ve done as a family?

Allison: Some of our very favorites are some we’ve mentioned, like the poinsettia challenge. We call it “the challenge” because we try to encourage everyone who has a “Giving Manger” to join us on that one. It’s so simple but can make such a big impact. We love to do that.

We love to make cookies, drop them off at neighbors’ doors. We love to do notes for nursing homes. We write notes for each other. Pretty much every Christmas I get at least three little notes, whether it’s on my pillow with my bed made or just a note that says, “I love you, mom. You’re doing a good job.” Or I’ll put notes in my kids’ lunch boxes. It’s as simple as holding the door for someone, putting someone’s shoes away.

We have a list of hundreds and hundreds of simple service ideas to try to make it easy for families because sometimes you need a few ideas. Anyone can hop on our website and download any of those for free. It’s a great way to get started. There are also year-round service ideas. They’re not just things that can be used at Christmas.

Lisa: This is something we did in our childhood that we’ve done as a family. To me it was like one of the most meaningful things. Our parents asked us to think hard about a family that we thought might need a little extra help that year. They might be going through something. It might not even be financial. It just might be that they’re going through something. Think really hard about picking a couple of families or just one family that we really want to make Christmas special for.

We wanted it to be a secret. We didn’t want them to know who did it. So, we would pick a family and then we would go at the most random time so we’d never get caught. We’ve never seen their faces. We never stayed and watched anything.

I think there are a lot of people who don’t know how to ask for help or their church community isn’t good at communicating that or they don’t have a good community. There were a few families that were just the loveliest people, and every time I saw them, I knew that they had no idea that we were the family that dropped something off every single morning for the 12 days before Christmas, just to make them feel special. They just knew they were loved. They didn’t know by who or why. We didn’t need credit. Every time I saw all these families, I just knew that I’d given them my love.

That’s something we’ve done as a family, and it’s so fun to think of somebody who might need a little extra love that year. We love doing secret service. That’s one of our favorite things because it’s so fun because then nobody feels like they have to say thank you, or that they owe you something or anything. They just know that they’ve been loved on.

Learn more about The Giving Manger here.

Order your copy of The Giving Manger: A Christmas Family Tradition by Allison Hottinger and Lisa Kalberer