In our increasingly secular culture, for many people the meaning of Christmas often has more to do with family than with Jesus. Perhaps that partially explains why so many individuals, particularly those who suffer from depression, find the holidays an especially sad time. Feeling down can leave one feeling out of sync with others; knowing that it is a time when people are supposed to be happy (I'd personally like to know just who is the authority that mandates Christmas be a joyous season), can easily worsen a case of the blues.
Nevertheless, perhaps the expectation that Christmas is primarily about family is right. No family I've ever known has been entirely happy. Real families inevitably experience good times and bad times, ups and downs. Spending time with a sad person at Christmas can be refreshing. Their emotional honesty can shatter the false, glittering façade of the decorations and music that helps us to pretend we live in a world filled exclusively with happy endings.
The biblical story of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, examined after removing one's rose tinted lenses, is certainly not a story intended to give one a warm-fuzzy. What teenage, first-time mother would choose to give birth a long way from family and friends, in a smelly, dirty stable, with only a carpenter to help in delivering her first born? What young couple, no matter how godly, could live through such a stressful time without losing patience, becoming irritable, and lashing out at the other?
Indeed, the more I think honestly and dispassionately about Mary and Joseph's story, the more I like it and the more I think it is a useful lens for understanding Christmas. Christmas is about family, but real families rather than the cardboard and tinsel confections that we too often fabricate this time of year.
The miracle of Christmas—the human experience of God—occurs in every family whenever someone, even for just a moment, sets aside everyday emotions and preoccupations to give another person a special moment of love with the gift of a tender look, an affectionate touch, or a kind word. And the same is true for the larger human family whenever someone, even for just a moment, gives one of those same gifts to a stranger.
Christmas is not about some make-believe utopia. Christmas is about experiencing God's loving presence in the midst of our gritty, grimy world.
Have a real blessed Christmas!