Real meaning of Christmas
Despite the economic gloom, this is still a season for hopes and dreams, for greeting loved ones, and for remembering the true spirit of the holiday, writes Alf McCreary.
'Christmas is Christmas wherever you go. In both North and South, most people look forward to Christmas, and find great pleasure in its rituals in church and home. It is a time of very hard work for many, perhaps for most of us, but we wouldn't miss it for the world."
These words in the joint message of the Bishops of Clogher Dr John McDowell and Dr Liam MacDaid encapsulate the kind of Christmas with which most of us are familiar.
This is a time for giving, for greeting family members from near and far, for sharing meals with old friends and new, and for general enjoyment and thankfulness for being able to celebrate this unique period in the Christian and social calendar. Christmas has also developed into a great secular festival, with rampant materialism at a time when people are spending millions on buying presents, and some of it on themselves.
Despite all the evidence that the recession is not yet over, and that tough times may lie ahead, people are still going out to the high street and in some cases spending money as if there was no tomorrow. Of course, tomorrow will come, and so will the credit cards and other bills, but there is something special about Christmas when people buy things that they can afford, and sometimes scarcely afford, in order to bring joy and pleasure to people they love.
That is all part of the Christmas spirit, and so, too, are the many carol services all over the land when regular worshippers will be joined by millions of others who only attend church once or twice a year.
This year the Christmas lights are everywhere, and they provide a magnificent spectacle in cities, towns and villages, and in many colourful displays in homes all over the country.
There are also the lights in the eyes of excited children as they look forward to Santa's presents, and also in many cases taking part in the school nativity play. For parents and grandparents this is one of the most beautiful parts of Christmas, as young children in their utter innocence re-enact the story of the angels, the Wise Men, and the birth of a King and the Saviour of the world in a lowly stable.
All of this is an essential part of Christmas, but over the years our society has sentimentalised Christmas almost out of recognition.
As well as the humble birth in the stable, there was the reality of King Herod and his orders to massacre the children, the exit of the Wise Men heading back home on a different route, and the escape of the Holy Family to Egypt.
This is part the dark side to Christmas, and this has been captured, too, by some of the messages this year from our church leaders.
Church of Ireland Primate Dr Richard Clarke and the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh Dr Eamon Martin have spoken in a joint statement about the sense of fear in today's world - at home and abroad - and about how "it can almost leave us frozen in our tracks".
They ask us to think of those people caught up in the onslaughts of militants in the Middle East, the devastation caused by the Ebola disease in parts of Africa, and the disturbing and dangerous conflict in Eastern Europe.
They also ask us to remember the many people who have been forced violently to flee to safety because of their religion, ethnicity or cultural identity, and they think especially of the plight of Christians in Iraq, Syria and the entire Middle East.
This has been a terrible year for Christianity, with thousands of Christians being tortured and murdered because of their faith, or driven by militant Islamists of many kinds from some of the very places in the Middle East and other places where Christianity first took root.
It is against this sombre background that Christianity survives, and brings the hope of the Gospel message to the world.
This is not only by preaching the Word, but also by doing good works.
The church leaders this year have also reminded us of the plight nearer home of the hungry, those who sleep rough on the streets, the refugees, the immigrants and the asylum seekers. We should also remember the bereaved, the unemployed and those from broken homes.
For many people, Christmas is a difficult time because of sad memories, or of current difficulties, or a sense of loneliness and of time passing ever so quickly.
However, it is also important to remember also that Christmas is a time of hope, of renewal and of possible new beginnings, with another new year looming ahead.
This message was well-expressed by the Derry Bishops Ken Good and Donal McKeown when they noted "God's initiative" in Bethlehem and the "human response of those involved" which "can inspire in us today an understanding of life which is purposeful and loving, and can lead us to play our part in working courageously and compassionately to deal effectively with poverty, hunger, homelessness, loneliness and need of any kind".
Christmas can be many things - joyful, sad, sentimental, inspiring, thought-provoking, and perhaps all of these things, to different degrees.
Above all, it should be a time of thankfulness. For the Christians it is thankfulness for the birth of a Saviour, and for everyone it is also an opportunity to give thanks for the best of life, for friends and families, for the beauty and love of children, for the hope of new disciplines, new beginnings, and new ways of living.
Despite the all too evident gloom in today's world, and the inescapable hardship and suffering for many, the Christmas period - in the words of the Bishops of Clogher in their annual message - still "remains the great season of hopes and dreams".
Without doubt, the majority of us, sometimes despite ourselves, wouldn't miss it for the world.
Happy Christmas everyone!