While the historical question about the actual birthdate of Christ remains unresolved, some have been intrigued by the coincidence (or perhaps not?) of that date with the arrival of the winter solstice, the time when sunlight begins to increase perceptibly.

Though the discernible tendency of Christians to "baptize" local culture has been suggested as a rationale for explaining the curious proximity of this date with a Roman festival of the sun (Dies Natalis Solis Invictus), there is no evidence of such a pagan celebration before the middle of the fifth century.

Yet we do have a record as early as 243 AD of the celebration of Christ's birth on Dec. 25. Whether ordained by God or intuited by Christians, the celebration of Christ our Light is the heart of the Christmas spirit.

Light in the darkness has long appealed to human sensibilities this time of year. Everyone wants in on celebrating it, whether it be at Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Christmas. We have witnessed, of late, something of an explosion of these darkening days into a secular feast of light -- as just about any street in our towns can testify to from the day after Thanksgiving.

For Christians, of course, that light is very personal, deep enough to change even the hardest and bitterest human heart -- radically. More than a switch that lights up a Christmas tree, it is a bonfire that changes lives!

"A Christmas Carol," the famous Charles Dickens story of the transformation of Mr. Scrooge, is one of the most beloved of Christmas tales. A man who lives his life only in his own head is confronted with the reality of his mortality and the futility of a selfish life. He discovers that he also has a heart and, learning to listen to it, can feel the joy of giving generously -- or, in a more contemporary idiom, of living abundantly. Christmas is a time when everyone is liberated to give a little more -- and in more ways than one. Not only do we exchange gifts (which, when you come to think of it, is often a fairly even trade-off in purely economic terms), but we also give one another a little slack.

Something about the "Christmas spirit" brings out the best in most of us -- so much so that many ask, "Why can't every day be Christmas?"

Truth to tell, it is! Christ is born every day on every altar and, for believers, in every heart. Christmas is a day when just about every Catholic understands the connection between Christ and the Mass -- as the word "Christmas" suggests.

But, every day, Emmanuel is with us. What we celebrate at Mass every day is the once-and-for-all sacrifice of the death of the Incarnate Word for the sake of humanity. Christ's flesh becomes the crucible of God's heart-to-heart with the human race.

The Eternal Word, in taking flesh, breaks open, pouring out His lifeblood to heal our broken souls. And we can dare to be human beings once again, without fear in the face of death, because love has conquered death forever -- decisively!

Whoever is full of longing for a world redeemed from the depressive darkness of sin can dig deeply into the Christmas spirit to find the light of God's grace.

So, when was Christ really born? The answer is of little import for anyone who accepts the invitation of faith to receive Christ into the heart every day and to live under the healing balm of His grace. What if Dec. 25 turns out to be the actual birthday of Christ? Then we have a happy coincidence -- unless chance is just the logic of God.

(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)