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If you lose the religious side of Christmas much of the wonder goes up the chimney. There are many wonders, social and personal in the giving of gifts, the meetings of families, the celebration of a festive meal. It’s great when emigrants can make it home from the US and Australia to reconnect with those they love. And fair play to the retail outlets who supply the presents and for whom the Christmas shopping season is essential for their businesses. There is magic in the streets when the Christmas lights come on. There is good humour in the pubs when the singsong starts. Restaurants host office parties and staff dinners with the party hats and crackers, and there is a letting go of the stresses of the workplace. So without any mention of the mysteries of religion an uncountable number of good things happen at this season.

But the spark which gives rise to all these celebrations is the birth of a child, in an obscure place, of a Jewish couple living in Palestine under Roman occupation, whose parents were known to be decent people, who had to flee from an oppressive Herod, and eventually ended up being reared in a backwater town called Nazareth. It is a very simple summary of the obscure and ordinary origins of a man whose teaching was to transform the world. You might call this something of a wonder.

The winter solstice highlights and celebrates the invincible sun, the pagan tradition which conflated with the birth of Jesus in the Christian tradition. With the benefit of hindsight, now almost 2000 years of hindsight, we can attribute a remarkable act of God to the event. This is an act of faith. What is literally ‘full of wonder’ is that out of the ordinariness of human history Divinity made its presence accessible to all. God became human, the Word was made flesh, Jesus manifested the loving-kindness of God to a broken and confused humanity. It’s amazing how this free gift fails to inspire so many enlightened people. Imagine meeting a man handing out gold coins in Market Square or The Bull Ring and wondering if it was too good to be true; this is the challenge of Christmas Day, and Midnight Mass – the gift is almost too good to be true.

Of course there are consequences when you accept the gift: you have to allow that it is the same for all of us, and care for one another is part of the deal.

'The traditional Christmas tree is a very ancient custom which exalts the value of life, as in winter the evergreen becomes a sign of undying life. In general, the tree is decorated and Christmas gifts are placed under it.

The symbol is also eloquent from a typically Christian point of view: it reminds us of the “tree of life” (Genesis 2:9), representation of Christ, God’s supreme gift to humanity.

The message of the Christmas tree, therefore, is that life is “ever green” if one gives: not so much material things, but of oneself: in friendship and sincere affection, and fraternal help and forgiveness in shared time and reciprocal listening'.

Saint John Paul II

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