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Build a Christmas Manger: Step-by-Step Instructions

In my last post, I promised that I’d tell you all about the manger that my family keeps in our living room at Christmas. It has helped us to center our holiday season around generosity, remembering that our Savior came into the poverty of this world.

Today, I’m going to share our story with specific details, so that you can use these ideas too!

How It Started

Four years ago, Tim and I learned about Advent Conspiracy, a movement to focus on Jesus at Christmas. Their website included dozens of ideas. One idea read something like this:

Place a manger in your home. Every time someone does something kind, invite that person to place a piece of straw in the manger to welcome the baby Jesus.

We loved the idea. Then and there, Tim and I decided that we would use a manger as the focus of our Christmas décor. We have a small living room, so we had to choose between a big manger and a big tree. That’s how we coined a phrase that Tim and I often repeat to one another: “Small Tree, Big Manger.” You might have enough room to do a big tree and a big manger, which is fine too!

Tim searched online for instructions on how to build a manger. He couldn’t find step-by-step instructions to build a manger, so he created his own plan. (I’ll share our instructions below.) It was surprisingly easy, fast, and inexpensive to build!

Welcoming Jesus with Straw in the Manger

Every year, shortly after Thanksgiving, I place a small decorative canister stuffed with straw-colored raffia on the mantle. One package of raffia ($3.99) from our local craft store is plenty to fill our manger. Plus, it’s reusable year after year.

We set out the empty manger near the fireplace. At this point, there’s no baby in the manger because we’re anticipating the birth of Jesus.

Whenever someone in our home is “caught” doing something kind for someone else, he or she gets to place a piece of straw in the manger. Anyone can catch anyone. Parents can catch kids, kids can catch parents, and kids can catch one another. The act can be small, like setting the table or sharing a toy. We aren’t stingy about what counts as kindness–the more acts of kindness, the softer the manger!

We remind our kids throughout the season that when we are kind to one another, God receives it as worship. We’re welcoming Jesus.

For Grown-Ups Too

I still remember one year when we took in a 9-month-old foster baby, Kay, just a few days before Christmas. That little one spent me. The combination of the holidays with a foster baby seemed like too much to handle. One evening, after we finally got Kay to sleep, I sat down on the couch next to Tim with tears in my eyes, wondering if I could handle caring for her even one more day.

I don’t remember the words Tim used to encourage me in that moment, but I’ll never forget how he ended his little speech: “Go put a piece of straw in the manger.”

It was a moment of worship for me, placing a simple piece of straw in our tumbledown manger, reminding me poignantly that our small acts of kindness are acts of worship in God’s sight.

Finding the Baby

On Christmas morning, our little family always exchanges gifts. But first, we hunt for Jesus! Tim and I find a hiding place for a doll that we’ve swaddled in some fabric.We set the kids loose to find the doll. My favorite part of Christmas morning is hearing one of my daughters yell, “I found Jesus!” as she victoriously places the doll in the manger.

Then we talk about how it feels to find Jesus, and how each of us has found Him. We pray to thank Him for coming to Earth to be found by us.

Step by Step Christmas Manger Instructions

Ready to make your own manger? Here are the instructions, courtesy of my handy husband! Just click on a photo to see it up close.

Step 1: Materials

Here is everything we used. A hammer, nails, an electric saw, one 1″x6″x48″ piece of wood and four 1″x2″x96″ pieces of wood. The total cost of the wood was $6.20. Pretty cheap, right?

Step 2: Large Sides

Cut the 1×6 piece into two 24” pieces. Cut a 1×2 piece into four 24” pieces. Nail two legs into each side as shown above.


Step 3: Thin Slats


Cut another 1×2 piece into four 24” pieces. Nail them into slats underneath the 6″ side. Make sure they are evenly spaced, about two inches apart.


Step 4: Side Details


Here’s a minor but important step. Cut two small 1″x 2 ″ x 3″ pieces and nail them to the left side of each half of the manger. You’ll need these when you combine the two pieces. Make sure you put them on the same side of each half of the manger.


Here’s a close-up of how to nail on those small pieces.


Step 5: Assembly

Cross the two halves together into and “X” shape. Put a nail right in the middle of the “X”. The manger will fold up and down at this point.


Step 6: Crossbars

Cut two 16″ crossbars and nail them to the top of each half of the manger. (Do you see the little 3″ piece from Step 4 on the right? You need that to make the cross bar even.)


Step 7: Optional

Cut a bunch of little pieces and place them at the bottom of the trough.


Step 8: Blanket

Place a blanket on the bottom of the trough to help catch the straw.


I hope you have many warm seasons celebrating Jesus with this manger, just as my family has! Leave a comment to let me know how it works for you.

(Now, what will you do with all the money you saved by building the manger yourself?)