The Nativity is really a frightening story with a happy ending. It had to be full of tough emotion for its participants. And we usually skip those emotions and go straight to the happy ending. We forget the uncertainty in the happiness of the result.
Consider Joseph, with a pregnant wife on the back of his one donkey in the cold. They didn't have a lot of luggage--not much extra food, not enough money. Not a lot of blankets or special clothes or the tools of his carpenter trade. They're on the road. That displacement has been ordered by the Roman government, so that a census may be taken. It's a sign that things are not going to be the same--they are a conquered people and soon to be a taxed people. They have a local despot for a king, a distant administration who props that king up. Joseph is supposed to protect Mary in the large and small things--and what's large and what's small had to change perspective every other minute.
And for all Mary had an Annunciation, she had to be worried something would go wrong or she wouldn't measure up. She's on the back of a donkey. She has to go to the bathroom now, but they also have to keep going. She has no women to help her with the layette. No midwife she knows will be there to cry on during labor pains. No midwife, even a stranger, guaranteed at all. Her first child will be born among strangers and maybe even in the dirt. There's no guarantee in the Annunciation that she'll live through labor either. It only guarantees that she is chosen and she is blessed. That leaves a lot of room for fear of the unknown. Because being chosen is not usually an experience without suffering.
The inn they found was probably a tavern. It was a gathering place for all kinds of people--reliable and unreliable. More of the unknown. If it was crowded with others like Joseph, just trying to fulfill responsibility, we don't know it. We never hear about them. At best it was full of tired and cranky people, but possibly revelers and gossips and people who needed a little reform. The innkeeper and his staff were slammed with work. The permission to use the stable for a Birth might have been a kind impulse. But that innkeeper also didn't (as far as we know) ask anyone to make room for a pregnant woman and worried father. Maybe he did ask, and nobody had compassion. Maybe they had reasons why the innkeeper should ask someone else. Maybe the innkeeper didn't have time to ask, or maybe he didn't care enough to ask. Maybe the stable was cleaner anyway.
So Mary had a baby in a stable. It was not her husband's baby, but somehow that had been resolved--through love, or faith, or need on one side or both sides. Joseph would have stabled the donkey. He would have shoveled the floor of the stall and piled up hay while she bit her lip and waited or even possibly fussed. Possibly he snapped a little, because he felt inadequate to the task. They would have been scared to death--no matter how much meaning was packed into it for them--and possibly even more afraid, given the meaning.
She lived through labor. She had a baby on straw instead of the side of a road. It was better than their worst fears, and hard to reconcile with the prospect of a large gift to the world.
They would have changed the hay. They would have listened for threat from the tavern, from Roman centurions, from the weather, from animals bigger than a woman lying on straw. Still it was a miracle. It was good.
The shepherds knew to come, but no town or tavern resident on record came. The baby was viewed and watched and exclaimed over by men with low-paying menial jobs, uncertain hygiene, rough habits. But he was loved immediately.
It is a remarkable account, you know, just for its human effort. And this particular birth, in this particular set of conditions, later changed the world and the language of the spirit. For most of us who celebrate Christmas, it is the onset of our religious beliefs. It changed our understanding of the Divine, and where that Divine is present.
But even those with a different religion, or no religion, can ponder this and perhaps see meaning in it. They can see why decency matters, why worry and care are tied, why life is precious and poverty is hard. How much we need each other and how much we must do for ourselves, the very best we can.
Infinite possibility was born in soiled straw by one scared woman with one worried man in attendance, and a host of threats, large and small, all around. And that infinite possibility was, and is always, a miracle.