Someone asked recently: " If you take the 'Christ' out of Christmas, what are you left with?"
The answer is: "The original mid-winter pagan festival which the church cleverly took over and used for its own purposes."
The pagan festival element is in full swing, with more cities like Belfast accepting a secular slogan for their Christmas celebrations, but conversely the churches themselves are still adept at using this season to spread their message.
Traditionally one of the most effective ways of doing so was by sending Christmas cards, usually with pictures of the baby Jesus in the cradle surrounded by animals, whatever the historical accuracy of this may be.
Recently an English Anglican Bishop said that he preferred traditional Christmas cards which were much more friendly than the e-mail versions which many people now send.
I agree, though I was taken aback to be charged £20 for 40 second-class stamps. I should have known better but the details of the increases had passed me by.
Many people may be more choosy this year in posting cards to people they really want to contact, rather than the old habit of sending a card to Joe or Joan just because they send one to you every year.
Perhaps the beginning of wisdom is to cut down on your Christmas card list, though many people still do not have the heart to do so.
If you do not get a card from me this year, it's not personal, but because I think that a donation to charity is more appropriate.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the traditional Christmas is the richness of the music. Recently, for example, there was an impressive Advent service in St Anne's Cathedral, which included the choir of St Peter's Roman Catholic Cathedral in a welcome cross-community partnership. There were also attractive Christmas tree exhibitions in Eglinton Presbyterian and Willowfield Parish churches and elsewhere.
In the run-up to Christmas there have been countless carol services in churches of all denominations and the warmth of the words and music which stretch back to the distant past have helped people remember, with affection, their childhood.
There have also been many nativity plays to which parents and grandparents have been flocking as a captive audience. I know of one young lady of four who has made her first such appearance as a well-attired sheep, and I also heard recently about a parent who asked if her child could take part in a nativity service, dressed as a mince pie.
That would have provided food for thought.
Former poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman wrote a wonderful poem in which he referred to the fripperies of Christmas, and much of our Christmas celebrations are essentially charming variations on a timeless seasonal theme.
The real point of Christmas, however, is in helping others, and that is where the churches and their members so often excel. Each Christmas large sums are donated to many charities at home and overseas, including currently the Black Santa's sit-out, the Presbyterian Church's World Development Appeal, the Church of Ireland's Bishops' Appeal, Trocaire and many others – including special collections for natural disasters like the Philippines, and man–made disasters like Syria.
That is why the true spirit of Christmas remains so important. Despite all the rushing, the traffic queues and the hectic shopping, this period of Advent and the story of the Incarnation still remain very special.
I wish you all a Happy Christmas.
Ulster Hall was alive with historic sounds
Last Friday's performance of The Messiah by the Ulster Orchestra and the Belfast Philharmonic was one of the best I have heard for many years.
It was also good to welcome back the distinguished conductor Kenneth Montgomery to his native city. Several people asked me on the night about the very large lute-like instrument which they had not seen before.
It was a theorbo, which originated in the 16h century, and played by Andrew Maginley.
So now you know.
Prince’s warning over extremism
Prince Charles, who has long championed multi-faith society, has underlined the crisis where Islamist militants in the Middle East are trying to wipe out Christianity.
Add to this the muscular secularism of the West, and you reach a position where Christianity is being unfairly attacked on all fronts.
The Prince's warning is timely during this season when we commemorate the birth of Christ, which goes much deeper than fairy lights.