Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
The event occurred over 2000 years ago, and the date is still in dispute. In the midst of the crush and chaos of a government-ordered census in the city of Bethlehem, a baby was born to the wife of an itinerant carpenter from the tiny village of Nazareth. There being no room at the regular inns, the couple were relegated to the mean shelter of a cave used as a stable. Sometime during the night, some say as a new star shone brightly above, the baby arrived. He would be praised by people as the Son of God, but eventually put to an agonizing death by most of those very same people.
The "official" histories of the region mention him rarely, if at all, yet one is hard-pressed to name another person who has had such a profound effect on humanity.
We celebrate this birth on December 25, although most historians agree the event most likely happened in April. The holiday is a curious mixture of Christian belief and pagan symbolism, the baby Jesus displayed alongside Christmas trees. A beloved and bearded character dressed in red and white delights young and old alike, the blending of several historical personas. It happens just after the Winter Solstice, the time when the dark of night lasts much longer than the light of day, and even this is seen as symbolism, as houses and buildings are decorated with brightly-colored strings of lights. As those displays push back the dark, so we believe the arrival of the Prince of Peace also pushed back the darkness with the light of love.
It is a time of selfless giving, when people are generous with their time and resources to help those less fortunate. Charities receive their biggest contributions of the year, and in every city volunteers give up part of their day to prepare and serve a turkey dinner to the homeless, a few moments of warmth and acceptance before they return to the cold streets. People exchange gifts, some small and humble, others extravagant and expensive. Folks gather for parties at businesses, clubs, churches, and other places, breaking bread and spreading cheer and best wishes.
In homes across the world, families gather. It is a time when the bonds of family are renewed; love shines in rooms brighter than any collection of lights ever put together. And in some very special places, men and women who have lived with war leave the fear and violence behind to immerse themselves in the peaceful and loving world, that one place of safety and sanctuary they call "home."
Christmas is so many things to so many people. There are other holidays throughout the year, but none carry with them the same sense of love, peace, and togetherness as this one.
Most parents about my age realize that as the years pass the times when families can gather in the same place at the same time become rarer and rarer. Children are now adults, with their own careers and lives. Some have married and are busily raising their own children. With all the things occupying their time, it is difficult for them to be able to lay aside those few days to travel long distances in bad weather. So when that does happen, it is a time of great joy.
For us, this is one of those years. We are in Colorado, gathered at the home of our middle daughter and her husband. She is due to deliver her first child, our 6th granchild, sometime in the next 7 days, so it is even more meaningful. Last night, we all sat at the table, sharing chili and cornbread, a delicious repast on a winter's evening. Outside, a foot of new-fallen snow lay glittering in the moonlight. The tree was up and decorated, presents are piled underneath. There is laughter and love in the air as the grandchildren scurry through the house, getting acquainted with their cousins.
At one point, I stopped, put down my spoon and cornbread, and spent several moments soaking in the moment. Here they were; all around the table, laughing and having fun. We were together and joy put a sizeable lump in my throat. We will be together for a few days until the family begins to scatter again. Our son and his family back to Maryland, our oldest daughter and her boys back to California, and the other two daughters remaining in Denver, on opposite sides of town. My wife and I will return to Virginia. The house will empty of guests, grow quiet, and life will go on into the long, dark tunnel of January and February. And yet for these precious few days, we will enjoy each other, and love each other. Our cups of happiness will fill to overflowing, and a whole new collection of memories will flow into our hearts to be preserved forever.
This is what Christmas is to me; a time for family when such times become more rare. It is a time that we will take with us to tide us over during those months when we are far separated. Love and joy abound, and perhaps that is what God intended all along.
But even more profound is that this feeling becomes shared among us all.
Because the one enduring and lasting element of Christmas is that for a few priceless days, there are no strangers.
We are all "family."