Campbell started thinking of ways to tweak the idea of the traveling elf to better suit Advent, and about the ways Christians can prepare their hearts for the coming of Jesus at Christmas.
“Elf on the Shelf reports back to Santa if girls and boys are good or bad, and really in my own spiritual life, I have had to kind of undo that theology of ‘I'm good when I do this and I'm bad when I do this, and God is watching,’” Campbell said.
God is not like Santa, she said, in that he’s not a “transactional God, where as long as I'm doing good, then I will reap the rewards of a gift under the Christmas tree. In my own parenting, I didn’t want to pass that message along to my children.”
“And so I started conceptualizing: what could Mary do instead of being this watchful tattletale? That's going to create a friendship with her? How do we teach children to be friends with Mary?”
“I started thinking about what Mary was doing, even before they got the census announcement? She was probably preparing her house, preparing all of these things. She went on a trip to see Elizabeth. There are so many ways that we can recognize the personhood of Mary, and talk about that with our children - that she was a girl, she had normal daily tasks that she needed to do.”
In late November 2020, Campbell posted to social media, announcing the idea for Mary on the Mantel - a Mary doll that would show up in different places around the house every morning of Advent.
Instead of Elf on the Shelf’s brand of mischief, Mary would be caught doing things to prepare for the coming of baby Jesus, like washing baby clothes, or reading a pregnancy book, or planning her journey to Bethlehem for the census.
“I have this image of Mary taking our hands and leading us to her Son, a little bit like how I imagine for my own self, having the baby and wanting people to meet her,” Campbell said.
“We get to prepare ourselves for Christmas, and putting up our Advent wreath and our Christmas tree and cleaning the house and wrapping presents - that is similar to our preparation. We prepare homes just as a mother prepares her home to welcome her new baby.”
Instead of reporting on the children’s bad behavior, every morning Mary would be found with a message encouraging children to do a specific act of kindness each day. The notes can be left in Mary’s tote bag, which comes with each ‘Be A Heart Mary’ doll.
“How do we really become like the people who are prepared to meet the baby Jesus in the manger? We can do acts of kindness for others,” Campbell said. Because the parents can write whatever message they want and place it in Mary’s bag, they can choose acts of kindness that are tailored to their child’s development and what they are capable of accomplishing.
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“There are simple things to do. You could read a book to your sibling, or you could do a chore without being asked, or you could write letters to your grandparents, or call a friend, little things like that,” she said.
“Children could go through their toys and find toys that they don't play with that are still good, that could be donated to another child who needs them. But the parents are in control, so it doesn't get overwhelming.” Mary’s linen dress has room for paper towel or tissue stuffing to make her belly “grow,” Campbell added, as Christmas nears and she prepares to give birth.
And for parents struggling to come up with new ideas, Campbell’s blog post on the idea includes long lists of ideas of activities that the Mary doll can do, and ideas for age-appropriate acts of kindness.
The Mary on the Mantel project can be done with any Mary doll or figurine, Campbell added. After her Mary on the Mantel post, the Be A Heart dolls sold out, though Campbell is hoping to have more in stock soon.
Campbell also offers an Our Lady of Guadalupe doll, a St. Joseph doll, a baby Jesus doll, and more.
The Mary on the Mantel tradition also differs from Elf on the Shelf in that parents do not have to put Mary away once Christmas arrives, Campbell said. In fact, the Mary doll is meant to be a companion all year long.
“We really just think that journeying with Mary is an important way for children to enter into the Advent season,” Campbell said.