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Many people went to church to honour the true spirit and meaning of December 25. Christmas Day is associated not only with the birth of Jesus but also with the gathering of families and friends for feasting and the exchange of gifts. In its modern incarnation at least, Boxing Day is a determinedly secular occasion when the attention of most people is focused on the Test cricket, the Sydney-Hobart yacht race, or in grabbing a bargain at the annual department store sales.

Yet, the founding tradition of Boxing Day is of a time when people remember and recognise others less fortunate than themselves, usually through small acts of charity and giving. If such gestures have atrophied in recent years, there are still echoes of the old Boxing Day tradition in our contemplation of our good fortune, and the recognition that this depends as much on the work, the goodwill and the contributions of others as it does on our own efforts.

Despite the tendency of some of us to sink into occasional sloughs of despond, Australians have good cause to number their blessings. We need only to look at the suffering that characterises many other parts of the world to get a sense of perspective on our own supposed adversities. Poverty, and the diseases associated with it, have largely been eradicated from Australia. We are living longer and more healthily than ever, in part because of our world-class public healthcare system.

There may be wringing of hands in some quarters about the imminent end of the mining boom and earnest discussion about how we can cope with declining mining revenues, but the Australian economy is one of the best performed and managed in the developed world. The jobless rate is low by international standards, and public debt, at least according to credit ratings agencies, remains within manageable limits. The continued strong inflows of foreign investment into Australia are a testament not only to our natural wealth and political stability, but also to the skills and industriousness of our workforce.

In fact, statistics suggest we are perhaps a bit too hard-working at times. But that preparedness to work hard is also an indication of the rewards that can readily accrue to those who choose to do so. Indeed, those well placed to know (immigrants recent and past) argue that the opportunities to make a good and successful life in Australia are unrivalled. There are many success stories to corroborate such claims.

We are not a country much given to hyperbole and self-aggrandisement. Indeed, we are occasionally harder on ourselves than is warranted, but we are, by and large, sensible and mature and properly self-critical. We are also tolerant and generous, both to our fellow Australians and - through our aid budget - to people overseas. It is, of course, entirely appropriate that a prosperous people be generous in spirit and kind; giving out to those less fortunate than ourselves or whose lives might be afflicted by disaster, sickness, poverty, social injustice and war.

If Boxing Day is a day to appreciate our good fortune (and recognise those who are not manifestly blessed as we are) it is also an appropriate time to ponder our moral duty as individuals and as a society to share that good fortune, if not in terms of actual disbursement then in ensuring that future generations may also partake. The commercialisation of Christmas is the reason that consumption levels in Australia peak at this time every year.

This being Boxing Day, it's unlikely we will dwell at length on the fact that most of the natural resources used in the production and distribution of the things we have bought in recent days are finite - or that we may have gone into debt to pay for them. There is a belief in many quarters, however, that the manipulation of resources and industrialisation that has enabled our rising consumption over the past two centuries cannot go on unchecked; that regeneration, reform and technological innovation will not be sufficient to prevent us exhausting our natural capital, particularly with the population growing as it is. If we have little obvious evidence of resource depletion (apart from, say, higher prices for blue fin tuna) the rising level of greenhouse gases that are altering the climate is an obvious consequence of our appetite for consumption.

Boxing Day is a time to recognise, too, that we live in a wider human family and that while celebrating our good fortune we might also contemplate the benefits of restraint and simplicity in our lives.