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A time for the reaffirmation of friendship and the family

Does our Christmas have a value, apart from the sum of the presents we buy?

I wondered about this yesterday after a timely reminder of the danger some persecuted minorities run by attending church on Christmas Day.

Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, set me thinking when he said that, for some Christians, going to a service tomorrow "will not be an act of faithful witness but an act of life-risking bravery".

He called on politicians to set aside "misplaced political correctness" and "do God" to speak up for the persecuted. What a sobering contrast he highlights between their Christmas and ours. By and large the risk most of us run is over-indulging.

Has our Christmas lost its meaning by being less about church and more about present-giving and family? Well, I don't think it has, but first a confession. I used to attend church at Christmas.

Over many years, I have slid from high mass to midnight mass to carol services to humming along with the Vienna Boys Choir on the radio. Yet, Christmas has lost none of its importance to me. Nor has it lost its value, a Christian value, dare I suggest, in providing a time for family. I would go so far as to say it's the most important celebration of the year; a foundation for our way of life, nothing less.

Let me give you an example. Two nights ago I watched a woman's face light up when her adult daughter walked through the door, home for Christmas. It was a moment of sheer joy, one that will be shared all over the the western world. That's why Christmas is so important. It's about rebonding. It's a celebration of family and friendship. It's a time of reaffirmation.

Even without crossing the door of a church, Christmas for me embodies many Christian principles. Everything about this festival involves thinking about other people.

For weeks, if not months, we mull over what would most please the people we care about. When we find the right present we save to pay for it (or go into debt to buy it). We shop and cook and make rooms and beds ready. We book tickets and jam ourselves into planes, trains, buses and cars. We do it for our own pleasure but also because it's a time of reunion. We do it for other people.

Isn't that selflessness at the core of the Christian message? Tomorrow, like millions of others, I will sit down with my extended family for turkey and Christmas pudding. There will be the same old crackers with the same old jokes and at some point I will look around the table, register how the family's babies have grown into men and women while their parents have remained miraculously unchanged (ho! ho! ho!)

The family is at the centre of this universal birthday party. It is centred around the birth of Christ and celebrated by a drawing together of all families around one table and one meal. Sure, there are presents, too.

But hasn't the rampant materialism of a few years ago dimmed since the recession? How many more people have been shopping to an agreed, lower budget this year? I know I have.

As a society we are more aware than ever of those amongst us who are struggling. We know about and are shocked by the increased demand for food banks. And for all the propaganda about the workshy, we are also aware that these days anyone's fortunes can take a hit. Pensions have proved unreliable, savings offer such a poor return that they are being dipped into.

Empathy and, if we are lucky enough, our own good fortune prompts generosity. People donate food from their shopping and give cash. Some have abandoned Christmas cards, preferring to send a donation to the wretched of Syria. One family I know, not for the first time, will be dishing up Christmas lunch in a homeless shelter. Aren't these all acts of Christian kindness?

I know that too many people spend the day alone and that the general air of festivity adds to their isolation. But many people welcome friends and neighbours along with family. I know there are many whose family chemistry will make Last Tango in Halifax seem like The Waltons.

They may crave solitude. Isn't the first Monday after the holiday a high spot for estate agents? One told me it's when wives get the house valued because it is the asset they often keep post-divorce.

Amazon might deserve criticism for paying too little tax and for using its workers as human robots but it has lightened the Christmas shopping load. Aren't the gifts just another vehicle for the reaffirmation of family and friendship that is at the core of Christmas?

For the rest of the year we are driven by work. In the coming week, a stalwart band will selflessly keep essential services running. Others will produce newspapers and transmit radio and television programmes to keep us informed and entertained.

The rest of us get to rest while we focus on life's real priorities. Children get to spend a whole week with their parents. Cities empty as their inhabitants return to their roots. En masse, the population goes back to the countryside or to small towns and villages.

They might visit family at Easter or in the summer but Christmas is when everyone comes back; it's the only time they can guarantee to coincide with childhood friends.

How do you quantify the value of that? There are cards with season's greetings and there is the ubiquitous abbreviation of Xmas. It is perhaps part of the secularisation Douglas Alexander referred to. But the festival remains Christian in the same way as Hanukkah is Jewish and Diwali is celebrated by Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains.

On the day itself Church congregations swell, neighbours exchange greetings, visiting grand- children are shown off and admired. Community is strengthened.

Christmas rituals are there to be engaged with or rebelled against. Some families rotate their day around the Queen's Speech; others time their walk to miss it. But like all of the other traditions what matters is that it remains part of the set piece.

The other thing this festival does is mark the end of one year and the start of the next. Without it, think how the months would drift. Instead we have a feast, a few days rest and then the fireworks.

Soon enough we'll be putting the decorations back into their boxes, leaving the tree on the pavement and hovering up the needles. As homes seem momentarily half naked, we'll be sad and glad that it has come to an end.

There will be dark months still to be endured and possibly even colder weather. But by the time we get back to work daylight is already perceptively lengthening.

By then we are rested, indulged, reminded of who and what we are, reaffirmed in the fundamentally Christian system of values we live by in this country, reminded of what matters most to us and armed, each of us, with resolutions for the year to come.

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