Christmas, and days after it, are the biggest secular public holiday of the Australian season, eclipsing other dates such as Easter, Australia Day or Anzac Day in terms both of economic impact and effect on the pattern of people's lives. Strictly it is a religious holiday - for followers of Christ, whose birth in a manger more than 20 centuries ago is being celebrated. That a religious feast day has a public character is a reflection of the fact the early settlers of Australia, from the late 18th century, were generally Christian by profession, and inheritors of that culture, civilisation and way of life usually characterised as Judeo-Christian.
Yet it has long also had an inclusive character - and it is rightly a holiday even for those many Australians who do not identify with the Christian religion, and who come from different religions, cultures and civilisations. It is said that even the adoption of December 25 as the date for the holiday is an adoption, or co-option, of earlier mid-winter and solstice celebrations in the northern hemisphere - a pause, during those hard times when one was depending on stored food gathered during the spring and summer, at which one first turned to look hopefully for signs of a spring and growing season ahead.
Just as importantly, however, a more secular and commercial spirit has also enveloped Christmas, making it not only a matter of religious commemoration and revival, but also a time of family union, exchange of presents, and occasions for celebrating, and being thankful for life's blessings. With spirits like that, it is a time for all. Some will no doubt deplore the excesses of some present giving, or some crass and crude attempts to prostitute a holy day for sheer profit, but those who do should understand that it is the excess, rather than the spirit of giving, that is objectionable.
That excess might seem the more obvious to devout Christians who will recall the New Testament stories of the birth of Jesus put all of the stress on the poverty and the humbleness of the scene of his birth. By the traditional accounts, Joseph and his wife, the heavily pregnant Mary, had been obliged to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to register for a census ordered by Rome.
There was no room at the inn, and, it was to be in a stable that Mary gave birth to her son. This, Christians believe, was to be the Messiah, the leader Jewish people believed they had been promised by God who would redeem them from the effects of the original sin which had separated mankind from God, and who would lead His people into a new relationship.
Many Jews had seen this much longed-for Messiah as a king or a military figure who would take Israel out of bondage, and make the nation free, great and faithful to its religion. By contrast, the very essence of the message of Jesus, and of his Kingdom of God movement, was that the kingdom to which He would lead them was ''not of this earth'' but a kingdom of the heart, the soul and the life hereafter in heaven. He was offering not military or political victories, but a liberation of the mind to be achieved both by a simple and pious life of devotion to God, focused not on mechanical observances but sincerity and purity of heart, and by practical charity and justice towards other people, expressed by the phrase that those who gave charity to others were, in effect, giving it to God. The message was of love, not of conquest.
The Christmas story is not so much focused on the message the baby in the crib was to preach as an adult before his crucifixion about 33 years later. Rather, it retells the story of man's fall from grace, of a universal yearning for a restoration of relations, often frustrated by that very humanity and infidelity that had created the breach. It tells of Mary, a young woman visited by an angel who told her she had been chosen by God to bear a son who would be that redeemer. In telling that story it visits any number of timeless themes, not least of the fact that within weeks of the birth, Jesus and his family were to be refugees, fleeing a persecution ordered by King Herod.
It is right and proper and just that followers of Christ gather at Christmas to commemorate the liberation that they believe was brought by Christ, and that they mark the occasion by bringing families together, by attendance at services, and by the simple exchange of gifts. Likewise, the Feast of Saint Stephen, or Boxing Day, is a reminder that the duty of charity and justice to all extends well beyond the family or the clan to the world at large, not least to those in our community who are less fortunate.