Belfast Telegraph

Despite all the pressures and strains this season of peace is still priceless

By Alf McCreary

Two days ago I overheard two ladies complaining in a lift at a shopping centre. One of them said: "Christmas always does my head in."

The other agreed: "It's desperate - all this, and for only one day."

It wasn't my inclination to get involved in that debate, but their views are probably shared by many thousands of other people.

There are times when the Christmas rush seems overpowering.

The centre of Belfast has been thick with pedestrians and traffic in the past few days and some people are shopping with such an intensity that the world seems about to end.

The balance of Christmas was well underlined to me during a visit to buy a special card for my wife.

There were many examples of cards for a wife or husband, sister, grandparents and other members of the family.

However, there were rather fewer examples in a small section which was labelled 'Religious Cards', even though religion lies at the heart of Christmas.

The secular encroachment of Christmas was also well-illustrated this week by the plea from a Church of England bishop.

He asked people not to start their sales shopping online on Christmas Day, but to leave at least one day as a time for reflection and for family togetherness.

No doubt the majority of families enjoy their Christmas Day together, despite the hassles and strains sometimes involved in such annual encounters.

There is always a relative who can leave others working doubly hard not to cause offence.

There is the ideal of 'Happy Families', but as we know there are many families where some members do not talk to one another, even at Christmas.

Sadly, there are also those family dinners where there is an empty place at the table and the memory of a loved one who has passed away. This is always more pronounced at Christmas when memories come back of friends and colleagues who have died in the past year, and this is highlighted by many a Christmas card list where names have had to be crossed out.

The sending of cards is also complex. Every year I promise myself not to send so many cards, partly because of the astronomical cost of postage. I never count them, but I am sure that I send as many as ever.

This is partly because of sending cards to people who have unexpectedly sent one to me, but there is the genuine pleasure in sending cards and hearing from people with all their family news over the previous 12 months.

There is also pleasure in receiving cards from someone you thought had died and also sadness in hearing that others to whom you had sent cards had, in fact, passed away.

This is supposed to be the season of peace on earth and goodwill to men and women.

However, I have rarely known a time when there has been less goodwill among politicians in London, Dublin, Belfast and Brussels.

Some of the exchanges have been vicious, including in the north where the DUP and Sinn Fein are on particularly bad terms.

It galls me to hear Gerry Adams and the Shinners asking for 'respect' from the DUP and others when they have such little respect for unionists.

Nevertheless, we all have to move forward in the search for permanent peace on this tortured island, and as some of the noted bridge-builders have said for many years: "You cannot be an effective peace-maker unless you are at peace with yourself."

For many people, that is a big ask.

Despite all of this, I still enjoy Christmas and the goodness that is still in our midst.

This week I visited the Black Santa and his barrel outside St Anne's, and I thought of all the previous Black Santas and people from all backgrounds who have given many thousands of pounds to good causes.

It is also good to hear the St Anne's choirs on their recent CD Born On a New Day which would still make a good Christmas present.

I hope that all my readers, including my critics, have a truly enjoyable and thoughtful Christmas in this priceless season of peace and goodwill to all.

Belfast Telegraph

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