A Christmas card from the Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran wishes us a Merry Christmas. There is nothing unusual about that. Countries with other religious traditions commonly recognise the Christian festival and share its greetings at no sacrifice to their own faith and traditions. It is only in Christian countries that some solicitous folk feel obliged to avoid all religious references lest they offend others.

Christmas is wonderfully a religious occasion, even for those who do not acknowledge it and do not realise it. A spirit of goodwill is real. It goes beyond greeting cards, gifts and good wishes. Christmas softens the hearts of all except irrevocable cynics.

As the year comes to a close its problems and arguments seem to recede in importance. The spirit of Christmas brings family members overseas home to visit, and brings old friends and relatives together, often for the first time since last Christmas. The spirit moves in the wider community, bringing donations of gifts, food and friendship for those alone or destitute at Christmas.

Tonight and tomorrow morning many more people will go to church than go on any Sunday of the year, including Easter, to sing carols and experience the spirit of something that is warm, timeless, reassuring and splendid. Tomorrow some people will make a personal act of charity, turning up to help the Auckland City Mission serve Christmas dinner to those who could not otherwise enjoy one.


And for everybody, tomorrow will be quiet. It is one of the few days in modern life that shops are closed, sport and daytime entertainment is not scheduled, the newspaper will not appear.

The peace of Christmas Day seems sacred and secure.

With any luck it will be sunny. Residents of the Northern Hemisphere sometimes sympathise with those of us who have Christmas in summer. To them it is unimaginable without a chill in the air and the possibility of snow to bring the romantic Christmas images to life. But they do not know what they are missing.

A Christmas in New Zealand sunshine has a freshness and warmth of its own. Many decide it is too hot for the traditional midday roast but just as many retain that fine tradition. Lashings of turkey, sweet peas, new potatoes and the rest go down fine in midday sun, leaving a long languid afternoon to sit, talk, finish the wine and set up an evening barbecue for those whose appetite returns.

Feasting is the way people have always marked important days together. Feigning guilt is part of the fun. Christmas is a celebration of the innocent joy of living, the birth of a baby that marked the beginning of a strain of religious thought that would have a powerful influence on the character and history of Europe and the continents it colonised.

Christianity was not always a tolerant religion but it is today. It poses no threat to its resurgent monotheistic cousin, Islam, though leaders of both traditions have some work to do to remind their adherents of the fact. Christmas is the best expression of modern Christianity: open, undemanding, dedicated to peace, compassion, generosity and joy.

A large number of us, when baldly asked by the Census, declare we do not belong to it, and we do not practise it.

But when the year winds down and we feel the first heat of summer, when the bunting goes up, Santa appears and carols are in the air, we are glad of the religion's artefact. It impels everyone to acknowledge the goodness around them with the simple wish we offer our readers now: have a happy Christmas.