There's more to Christmas than Downton and Strictly
It is a time to console ourselves with the knowledge that there is kindness abroad in the world, says Alf McCreary
The Christmas season means so many different things to so many different people. For some, it is party-time and the opportunity to eat and drink as much as they can afford. For others, it is an opportunity to renew old friendships through Christmas cards, or lunches, or get-togethers.
For television viewers, it marks the glamorous finale of Strictly Come Dancing, with its gorgeous women this year, or the special edition of the pot-boiler Downton Abbey, which has deteriorated into an up-market EastEnders.
Or watch a classic movie such as It's A Wonderful Life.
There are so many worldly delights, distractions and challenges that the essence of Christmas can be crowded out by the clink of the tills and the cacophony of the marketplace.
It is traditionally the season of goodwill, traffic jams, bustle and queues, the search for the right present for everyone, the careful drink to avoid losing a driving licence, or the highs of over-indulgence and the lows of the hangover and indigestion; and at the end of it all, the still, small voice which queries the rushing and the eating and drinking and which asks, "What was that all about?"
It is also a period which is high on the stress list, along with the challenges people face in bereavement, divorce and moving house. Sadly, for some people a 'Happy Christmas' is a contradiction in terms.
For Christians, however, it is one of the most important festivals of the religious calendar and a confirmation of one of the main tenets of the faith – namely that God became flesh in the form of Jesus to show the world the spiritual dimension that exists around and beyond our flawed humanity.
This Christmas, as in previous years, there has not been a great deal of 'goodwill to all men' – or women.
The continuing television pictures of the unbearable suffering in Syria and news of yet more possible conflicts in Africa are greatly disturbing.
So, too, is the publicity about a supposed £200,000-a-week salary for a top sports figure, in a world where two-thirds of the people suffer disease and malnutrition and where 10,000 children die each day from hunger.
Yet, was it not ever thus? Charles Dickens's classic allegory, A Christmas Carol, outlined the horror of the hardship of his time and the difference for good that one human being can make – in this case, Mr Scrooge himself, whose change of heart is one of the most memorable tales in English literature. Christmas is also a time for the unexpected, as when British and German soldiers in the First World War declared a truce on Christmas Day and played football. We, too, should learn to expect the unexpected in our lives.
In spite of all the depressing news, the haunting challenge of the hungry, the homeless, the unloved and the unloving, Christmas is a period when there is the possibility of magic in the air.
This includes the magic of Santa Claus and also the goodness of those people who arranged recently to transport 120 ill children from Ulster to Lapland for a day to meet the great man himself.
On the day and hour when we find out about Santa, we all begin to grow up a little and to realise the toughness of the real world. Yet, at Christmas, a part of our childhood lingers, sometimes in the Christmas services with their timeless carols and soft memories of happy days long gone.
Often this magic is still mirrored in the eyes of our young children and grandchildren, to whom the world is still fresh and full of wonder and discovery.
It is through their eyes that we adults still cling to the magic and crowd out the reality.
This is also a time for memories, for thoughts of those who are now gone, and for recalling the light they shed in our own lives.
It is also an opportunity to console ourselves with the knowledge that there is still kindness abroad in the world.
Some years ago at Christmas-time, I was stranded in Africa, with a US$100 traveller's cheque, which was too big for the bank teller in Khartoum airport to cash.
I had just left Sudan and had landed in Egypt en route to Tunisia and not to Nigeria, because of a last-minute change by Christian Aid, which was sponsoring my long journey overseas. In Cairo airport, I met a stranger called Frank McGuinness, a Canadian, who joined me on our flight to Tunis.
I had little cash and nowhere to stay.
We landed shortly after midnight. Frank let me share his taxi to the Hilton Hotel on the outskirts of the city and then he booked me a room for the night and paid for it.
He said: "You are working for an organisation which helps the poor and the hungry.
"The room's on me – it's for your cause."
It was one of the best Christmas presents I ever received and it reminds me still that there is always good in our world, even in the worst of times, and that we still must cherish it – wherever we find it.
Happy Christmas everyone.