An excerpt from my novel, The Substance Hoped For:
Through the accidents of history come the customs of holidays. Some parallels between 20th Century observances and original events are based upon centuries of repeated lore. Others are the result of mere happenstance, not thought of by modern day revelers.
Christmas is indeed the celebration of Christ’s birth, even if the original date is unknown. There are the manger scenes. Some are life size with real animals and people, trying to recreate the original as truly as possible. Others would be an embarrassment were it not for the fact that the resident nine-year-old made it at school. Gifts are given, whether an unwanted tie in bright paper or the ultimate gift from God wrapped in straw. There are the anxieties of not feeling ready enough and being overwhelmed with the demands of the season, whether it’s trying to get all the cookies made or finding a room at an inn. There is the joy over what lies at the core of the event, however.
There is one other element of Christmas which the original event shares with all of its subsequent remembrances and no one ever knew about; having company that is welcome but keeps you up past your bedtime. The shepherds were an unexpected surprise at the stable. Their infectious joy was a boon to the lonely family. Mary and Joseph had no one there to celebrate the birth of their Son with them.
Oh, they were more than happy about the birth of Jesus. There was nothing about this evening that they would now change even though they had despaired over their predicament within the last twenty-four hours. No, they were quite pleased with the outcome. This would be a night to tell their Son about someday…over and over again. This was virtually the stuff of legends, the kind of event that would survive generations in the family oral history. They couldn’t help smiling at the thought of their children’s children relating the tense tale of how Jesus’ birth unfolded.
But there was a sense of disappointment all the same. There was the exultation of the moment but no roar of the crowd. Then these wild hill men came to rejoice with them at this most opportune moment. They were all as a family for this night.
Many of the things the shepherds had to tell Mary and Joseph caused the new parents a certain amount of discomfort. Just when life was starting to look normal again, these guys came along to remind them that this special Baby is God’s Messiah. Ultimately, that contained comfort. It confirmed their dreams, which had made them doubt their sanity at times.
So, in keeping with the Christmas tradition of centuries to come, the shepherds stayed late, keeping the Holy Family from their sleep. Oh, well. Joseph and Mary had taken a nap earlier. And how often do they ever entertain, really? They didn’t know a lot of people in town and might as well take advantage of this impromptu Welcome Wagon. They’d just sleep in a bit tomorrow. It’s not like they did this every night.
Eventually the shepherds left. It had been fun, but in the end Mary and Joseph were glad to see them go. They could now act out the final stage of this particular holiday tradition. The vacuum of the departure of one’s guests leaves the hosts tired and without direction for a while. Fortunately, the mundane tasks of living press upon us at these times. We clear the dishes, put back the chairs, put the cow back in her stall, and fluff up the straw bed. Mary and Joseph moved about in that post-company daze that we all know so well.
The only member of the family who seemed unaffected was Jesus. Oddly enough, He was pretty calm despite all of the excitement of being born and handed around by strange people, late company, and all the rest. Usually kids get cranky with all of the disruption of a holiday, but this was one Kid who managed to take it all in stride. His parents couldn’t have been more proud of Him.
The Substance Hoped For