In 1963 when I was in graduate school at Columbia University, I lived with my wife, Penny, and our three children, aged 7, 3 and 6 months, in a small one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx.
My Ford Foundation fellowship barely paid for my tuition, rent and groceries. As Christmas approached, we realized we did not have the space or the money for a tree.
So Penny came up with the idea of pasting our Christmas cards on the living room wall in the outline of a tree. The children’s gifts would lie on the floor beneath.
In Albuquerque, where we had lived previously, I had been on the parish council and Penny and I had been active in the Christian Family Movement. We had many friends and a large family from whom we expected mail for Christmas.
But day after day passed and no cards came. We had just about despaired when on the last mail delivery day before the holiday we found enough cards in our mailbox to make the outline of the Christmas tree. It was an apt symbol of what Christmas means.
The celebration of the birth of Jesus links us with friends and family. It is the one time of the year when we can count on hearing from those near and dear to us. Christmas cards often come also from acquaintances we would not ordinarily hear from.
There is something about the feast that wants to bring us all together. We realize once again that we belong to a family, a community, a circle of friendship and love.
But Christmas challenges us to go beyond family, friends and acquaintances and embrace the whole human family. Thus the angels proclaimed on that first Christmas: "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests."
That takes in all races, including the strangers and the immigrants among us. We are a long way from realizing that ideal.
U.S. Hispanics with roots in Latin America or the Caribbean have a beautiful tradition of going back to their homeland for Christmas.
For a people who have all too often met rejection here, going back is the way to experience again what it means to be welcomed, valued and loved.
It is how people recharge their human dignity, heal and nourish self-esteem, so as to return renewed to the arena of their struggle for life and for a future for their children.
The song "I’ll Be Home for Christmas" touches the human heart because it acknowledges that for perhaps the majority of us going home is a matter of reliving memories and going over our dreams.
But home, after all, is not just the geographical place we left but what we carry with us: values, culture, faith, experiences and family history. We need no money, green card or other documents to revisit that home. It is always with us.
Writing about Hispanics in the United States, theologian Fernando Segovia wrote: "We are a people living in two worlds, away from our traditional home, creating and establishing a new home."
Those words sum up the challenge facing Christians every time Christmas comes around again.
Though far from our eternal home, we have to rededicate ourselves to the mission that began in that stable in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago: to create and establish God’s kingdom of love and justice throughout the world.
Our imagination reveals countless way to achieve that mission.
Sandoval is a columnist for Catholic News Service.