The planet Earth travels around its sunin an elliptical orbit that takes a little over 365 days (rotations of the planet) to complete. While it does this, it sort of "wobbles" relative to the sun, so the North Pole is closer to the sun at one point of this journey, while the South Pole is closest at a point approximately six months later. The more the sun shines on the closer pole, the more light is has, and the longer the "days" are. As a result, our planet is closest to our sun in late March and September, and farthest away in late December and June. The days are shortest in the Northern hemisphere in December and in the Southern hemisphere in June, while the people who live on the equator enjoy the same hot temperatures pretty much all year. This also leads to the "midnight sun" of those places that are far enough north and south for the sun to shine on them all day for some periods of the year.
You probably know most of that already. At certain times of year, the days grow shorter and colder, and the day at which we lean farthest away from the sun is the first day of Winter. Since this is such an easy event to observe, human beings have, since long before recorded history, placed a lot of emphasis on this day. As an astronomical and astrological phenomenon, the Winter Solstice is so significant that few, if any, human cultures in the Northern hemisphere have failed to build some sort of religious observance around it. As Christianity was establishing itself as an official religion of the Roman Empire, it, like most religions, developed holy days as a means of celebrating God's intervention in our lives throughout the year and of teaching important concepts about what it means to be a participant in our religion. Fortunately, the Romans already celebrated Saturnalia and the various pagans that the Church brought into the fold over those years likewise had Winter Solsticetraditions of their own. With the shortest day of the year marking the turn of a new year, this seemed a great place to start our teaching of the Christian journey by celebrating Jesus' birthday at that time.
Many people celebrate the entire season of Christmastide as the twelve days following Advent (and the origins of a popular song) while others extend it all the way out to 40 days, celebrating Candlemas on the second of February. No groundhogs are harmed in the creation of this holy day.
This is not to dilute the importance of Jesus' birthday, but the fact remains that we do not know the exact day on which it occurs - all we have are legends and songs - but we have a long history of celebrating that birth and of the events that surround the first years of Jesus' life. We've just finished Advent, where we spent four Sundays preparing for Jesus' arrival, and now we're celebrating his arrival while we wait for the Epiphany (or revealing of the new-born child) on January sixth. Not to be left out, pretty much everyone else is having a party, too. We've even got events where some guy in a red suit breaks into our houses and leaves stuff and one where a gazillion people stand around to watch a giant disco ball slide down on a tower. We have a lot of traditions around those, too, and sometimes we overly confuse their significance as being on a par with Jesus' birthday. It's just an opinion, but I don't think they are. I was recently reminded of this when I heard someone ask whether we would get more meaning out of the holidays if we sang some songs, and someone replied "Let's sing that one about the guy banging a drum next to a sleeping new-born. That always gets them." Sometimes, I think that all we seem to want to do at this time of year is make noise at the expense of that new born.
And this is where Christmas has something to account for. We tend to come to it, perhaps rightly so, as a celebration that culminates our season of preparation for God's great gift to us. We sing carols of joy, charity, righteousness, love, and a host of other positive emotions, but still, when we finally get here, we get a bit caught up in the gift. Much like the kid who famously got his Nintendo 64, we shout, sing, and generally prance about with glee that God has given us that one present that we most need. I can't count the number of songs I've already heard this year that celebrate either Jesus' "majesty" or the fact that he is going to be killed for us. On the other hand, it's not so hard to count the number of songs about what it means to be a new family that is so poor that they have to give birth in a stable. We don't talk much about the fact that our "holy family" is quickly turned into just another refugee family with a new baby, trying to make it in a world that is seething with political violence, in addition to its other dangers. There are very few songs and celebrations about the 33 years that Jesus is about to spend growing up, living what amounts to a normal life for his time. We don't have a holiday to celebrate Jesus' first day at school; Jesus' first art project; Jesus' first date (if he ever had one); or countless other things that Jesus might have done that other people do. We're in a big hurry to crown him or kill him, but not so much of one to celebrate the person whose birthday we're celebrating. We don't seem to be all that into the life and times of what is arguably the most important family we've ever heard of. We do well with how things start and end (or don't) in Jesus' life because those are gifts in which we have a vested self-interest. What about the rest of it? What about the young mother and baby, giving birth in a germ-ridden barn during an age with a high infant and mother mortality? What about the possibly terrified father who is not only desperate for the health of his new family but is also trying to understand the charge God has laid upon him? What about the days spent as refugees on the run from people looking to kill their child? What about the countless other challenges they will face? If we can so easily look past the very real issues faced by the "holy family" at the time of Jesus' birth, is it any wonder that so many other families have to find a way to get through such challenges? On this Christmas, might we spare a little time to celebrate the potential inherent in the lives of so many other families? Can we let Joseph, Mary, and their son Jesus be the family they are and honor the very real situation in which they found themselves? Can we find sympathy with others who may be in similar circumstances? We have the rest of the year to teach and celebrate a story of faith and sacrifice with an ending we all know so well. Can we take one day to let a little child be a little child?
And can we spend some time caring about the other people who God has introduced into our lives, even though we may never know them? They, too, are gifts that have been given to us.