Thursday December 27, 2012

I'm going home for Christmas. This is what Christmas means to me, at its core.

Fifteen years ago at a Lessons and Carols service in Williamstown, the chaplain of Williams College pointed out what the story of the holiday means. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem for the census because Joseph's family lived there.

The house may have overflowed with cousins sleeping on the floor, until Mary went into labor and needed a quiet place. But Mary and Joseph were among family.

Joseph must have known the road, the landmarks, the worn streets into town and the alleys where he had run and hidden and imagined citadels as a child. He must have known the house -- and the cousins and their children eating stuffed grape leaves and baklava in the kitchen -- and the closest doctor.

And this is a holiday story about family. In Barbara Robinson's "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," when the meanest kids in town take over the Christmas pageant, the eldest, Imogene, shocks the Sunday school by shouting out that Mary was pregnant. Imogene is a tough, neglected 10-year-old who has looked after her younger siblings since her youngest sister was a baby with a bureau drawer for a crib. She knows about babies.

The Christmas story is the night of Mary's labor. Her baby came in the usual way -- that's the whole point. And somehow, as Robinson's comically aghast congregation says, it gets overlooked. Who caught the baby? Did Mary have a midwife, like the ones who helped Moses' mother?

Joseph stayed with Mary that night, to hold her through the pain. That seems to be where home is -- where you go in pain -- where you want to be at times too large to fit into the usual scramble from breakfast to dinner -- where people know you and will stay by you when you come apart.

So on Christmas morning, I will wake in a white clapboard saltbox house two miles inland from the Connecticut coast, with maple trees in the side yard and a spur of rocky hill behind. My parents have lived here for 38 years. I crawled on the rugs here, raked leaf piles with my brother and sister, did algebra homework sitting on the roof. Home is a place you know by instinct.

And by the time the Magi come, I will be here again, looking for the people who are building around me, and going on with getting to know this place. I'm making this place home, too.a