In 1981, my parents did the unthinkable. They announced that our family would be holidaying in Queensland. If you think that might have been exciting news for a 10-year-old who’d never travelled further north than Sydney, you’d be wrong. I was livid.

The problem wasn’t Queensland, or even the fact that we would be forgoing the ease and glamour of air travel for a two-day road trip at the height of summer. (Afterall, how could I resist two days in the backseat of an unairconditioned Toyota Corona with my sweaty siblings, my legs sticking to hot vinyl upholstery?)

No, the problem was the timing. We would be leaving just after school broke up, my parents explained, so we could spend Christmas with some friends in Brisbane before visiting relatives on Stradbroke Island.

What were they thinking? I liked the friends in Brisbane and had enjoyed their company when they lived in Melbourne, but the thought of waking up on Christmas morning in someone else’s house, with someone else’s Christmas tree and decorations, going to someone else’s church, and celebrating with someone else’s grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins? It was all wrong. ‘It’s Christmas!’ I bawled as I flounced off to my room. ‘You don’t mess with Christmas!’

Of course, the holiday was hardly the terrible hardship I’d anticipated. Our friends could not have been more hospitable, and we enjoyed a raucous, reverent Christmas Day together. But lovely though it was, it still didn’t feel like a ‘proper Christmas’ to 10-year-old me.

Until that year, if you’d asked me about the true meaning of Christmas, I would probably have mumbled something vague about ‘Baby Jesus’. But Christmas 1981 suggested to me that there was something I had perhaps been missing—something profound and hard to put my finger on.

The day hadn’t seemed the same without my extended family and their peculiar traditions: the new dress sewed by my aunt and delivered on Christmas Eve so I could wear it to church the next day; the cotton-wool ‘snow’ on my grandparents’ decidedly unlifelike tinsel tree; the stockings my Gran gave me and my sister each year, filled not with sweets and trinkets but with shower caps, hair brushes and sensible underwear; the hilarity as my older brother and cousin unwrapped the increasingly elaborate joke gifts they exchanged each year; Nan’s pudding; Mum’s chocolate roulade; the books Dad carefully chose and less carefully wrapped for us; the bowls of Mint Leaves and Jaffas on the dinner table—even the disgusting Liquorice All Sorts.

I loved my family and felt happy and secure in their company. But it was more than that. It was the strange particularity of them that I was struck by, and the slightly mind-blowing realisation that of all the families in the world, only this one was mine.

When we ponder the incarnation of Jesus, the idea that God might come and live among us as a tiny baby is startling enough, but the fact that he took on the specific attributes and circumstances of an individual human life, in all their minute detail, is perhaps even more astounding.

Jesus lived, died and rose for each one of us, but he was no generic ‘every-person’; he was a particular man living in a particular time, place and culture. He had his own physical features and mannerisms—a certain timbre to his voice perhaps, a particular smile and laugh, his own turns of phrase and ways of looking at the people he loved. And, of course, he belonged to a particular family, with their own personalities, habits and dynamics.

Theologians sometimes refer to this as ‘the scandal of particularity’—their attempt to convey the sheer audacity of the idea that in taking on human flesh, the Creator and Redeemer of the universe, the transcendent God of all time and space, assumed the unique dimensions and characteristics of an individual human life. To be human, it turns out, is to be particular—even for God.

You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve become more flexible in my approach to Christmas over the years as my husband and I have learnt to accommodate each other’s family customs and created a few of our own. A Christmas Day tradition of my in-laws that I’ve grown to love is the moment late in the evening, before tired children are bundled into cars, when my husband and his brothers pull out their guitars. Slow, acoustic versions of ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Away in a Manger’ have been followed in recent years by my brother-in-law’s rendition of ‘How to make gravy’ by Paul Kelly, an artist whose songs wallow in the particulars of lived experience, and whose lyrics famously teem with local references and proper nouns.

The song takes the form of a letter (or perhaps a phone call) from ‘Joe’ to his brother ‘Dan’. It’s 21 December; Joe’s in prison and wonders who’ll make the gravy on Christmas Day in his absence. As he sends his love to each of the relatives who will be gathering without him, we get a sense of this family’s beautiful complexity—their humour and warmth as well as their foibles and brokenness. Like many families, the song has its moments of tension and rivalry, insecurity and regret. But a stronger undercurrent is the sense of Joe’s deep longing to be with the ones he loves—especially his wife and children, but even those he struggles to get along with. It’s a song that speaks to the deep human longing for ‘home’ and connection, as well as the universal need for forgiveness. ‘Oh praise the Baby Jesus,’ he sings in the chorus’s climax, ‘I’m really gonna miss it, all the treasure and the trash.’

Being part of a family—with all its treasure and trash—is something almost all of us have in common. Our families form and shape us. Even when family relationships break down, the longing for family usually remains. The deep desire to connect—to know and be known—persists even when the reality falls short of our hopes or expectations. We know deep in our bones that to be truly human is, among other things, to belong to a family. Indeed, as St Pope John Paul II famously observed, ‘The future of humanity passes by way of the family.’

When we think of Jesus’ family, we tend to focus on the Holy Family, the trio of Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child so familiar to us from nativity scenes and Christmas cards. But Jesus was born into a culture in which the extended family and the bonds of kinship were also tightly woven into the social fabric. We see this in the gospels: Mary travelling to share the news of her pregnancy with her cousin Elizabeth; Jesus and his disciples attending a wedding—probably a family celebration—with his mother and other relatives; his aunt standing, grief-stricken, with Mary at the foot of the cross. Many of Jesus’ followers are drawn into his orbit through their own family connections, and other poignant glimpses of family life are scattered throughout the gospels: a desperate father pleading for his dying child, for instance, or the fraught dynamic between two sisters with very different temperaments.

At Christmas, we celebrate the fact that Jesus is God, but also a human come to dwell among humans, which means he also dwelt in a family and among families. He laughed, cried and ate with them, saw their struggles, healed their wounds and illnesses, and knew as well as any of us what a complex and beautiful gift family life can be. Ultimately, he invites each of us to become part of his own divine family, not so that we might give up on our human families, but so that they—and we—might be blessed and made whole.