Why it's sad we miss the true meaning of holy days
It never ceases to amaze me that the secular world of business and retailing continues to make such a fortune out of major seasonal festivals which have a Christian origin. Some years ago I heard a Presbyterian minister give a sermon in which he said: "We are told in the New Testament that we cannot serve God and Mammon, but most of us still manage to do this very nicely."
How right he was. This is the first day of November, and already the Christmas lights are being put in place along certain streets in Belfast. This is probably also true of most of the other cities and main towns across Northern Ireland.
This weekend we are also marking Halloween, which is the eve of All Saints' Day, while November 2 was traditionally designated as a commemoration day when people visited the graves of former members of their families.
This has now been almost totally taken over by the commercial world and in the most ghoulish fashion with witches and skeletons abounding, as well as fireworks displays and numerous parties.
In one sense this is harmless and fun for the children and their families.
Yet, it is fascinating how the dark side of life seems to have taken such a grip on the public awareness of Halloween. This may represent an intrinsic human curiosity about such matters, but it is undoubtedly aided by the merchandisers who are keen to make as much money as they can from people who are prepared to pay for their seasonable parties and pleasures.
Now that Halloween is beginning to fade, after this weekend - given a few late fireworks bangs outside your door - the commercial attention moves swiftly towards Christmas.
There was a time when the trappings of the Yuletide season were not seen until the first week in December, but all that has changed for the worse.
In was in late August this year that I saw my first Christmas decorations which filled an entire room in Harrod's in London, and they seemed distinctly out of season. Only a couple of weeks later I noticed the first Christmas trees in a well-known Newtownabbey store. It may be only a matter of time until Northern Ireland traders will follow the example of Harrod's and start their Christmas displays in late summer.
This would be a pity, but there is little that we can do about it. The traders need to make money and, if people are prepared to buy their Christmas cards and presents earlier and earlier, this is simply the evidence of market forces at work.
What, then, is happening to the spirit of the real Christmas which is meant to be a celebration of the birth of Christ, and a symbol of 'peace on earth and goodwill towards men (and women) - however elusive that might be.
It is difficult to know how far the churches will be able to hold on to the mystery and holiness of the true Christmas message, in the face of the onslaught from the commercial world. Does this mean that you and I will turn our faces against parties presents at Christmas?
The answer is very much 'No' but, in all the revelry and - in many cases forced - jollity, it would be nice to reserve a corner of your mind to consider and try to appreciate the essence of the true Christian message.
One of the real wonders of Christmas is the joy it brings to children. If only we could also allow ourselves to become children at heart this Christmas, we might truly enjoy it a bit better.