The 17th-century poet and preacher John Donne told us (in the days before sexual equality) that no man is an island entire of itself but a piece of the continent, a part of the main. He went on to say in that famous sermon that any man's death diminished him because he was involved in mankind. Donne was born into an age of religious intolerance and his all-embracing view of the world was the more remarkable for that. Yet it is a sentiment that is no less relevant now than it was in Jacobean England.
It is well worth remembering today, on the eve of an overwhelming Christian festival. Christmas is an event that we tend to think is celebrated by all New Zealanders, even though our changing ethnic mix is creating a rich diversity of faiths. In other words, those of us with a Christian heritage or active belief are thinking as an island rather than as part of a broader community. Donne's mankind (or the humankind of the third millennium) embraces a multiplicity of faiths. The goodwill that Christians invoke on the birthday of their Saviour should extend to a recognition and tolerance of those other religions.
It is all the more important in a city such as Auckland. It does not yet boast all the shades of Nelson Mandela's rainbow nation. In reality, in terms of cultural diversity it still falls short of the likes of Melbourne and Vancouver. Yet what change has occurred in the space of a generation.
Time was when the city was almost exclusively European, with just a sprinkling of Maori and Pacific Islanders. A monocultural dullness stared beyond Asia and resolutely kept faith with Britain. Now, however, Auckland has a vivacity born of a vastly greater range of races, tastes and skills. To church spire and tower have been added synagogue, mosque and temple.
Host to their own festivals, some of which coincide with Christian festivals and some which do not, they are part of the richness which cultural diversity bestows on a city. It is an encouraging sign of melding cultures that many non-Christians choose to share with other Aucklanders this season of goodwill, this time for conviviality.
Christmas also means different things to Christians. For the nominal Christian there is more a matter of presents than presence. For the faithful it is a time of devotion and religious celebration that takes various forms.
As the Weekend Herald portrayals show today, the Catholic refugee from East Timor embraces Christmas in a far different manner from the traditional New Zealand festivities. As does the South African and the Pacific Islander. Even English immigrants must acquaint themselves with the alien concept of Christmas under, we all hope, sunny skies.
All these immigrants left their homelands in search of a green, pleasant and politically free land. All travelled in trepidation. For some, there was the fear of racism. In the past they may have had good cause for anxiety. But it is another yardstick of Auckland's development as a cultural melting-pot that such sentiment is now essentially consigned to history.
Racism has receded as immigrants become not so much different from but more a distinctive yet welcome part of the city's cultural environment. They have been absorbed, their culture intact, and Auckland is better for it. We have not, however, reached the stage where our melting-pot knows precisely when the holy month of Ramadan, the Jewish Passover, Chinese New Year, or Deepavali is being observed. That will come. In the meantime we can be satisfied that the goodness and charity represented by the life of Christ has parallels in all the world's great religions. So, when we say "Merry Christmas" we send a message of goodwill to all our readers.