The birth of Jesus Christ more than 2,000 years ago brings together two major religions of the world, Christianity and Islam.
Christians believe that Jesus was God though he was born of woman, while Muslims believe that he was not only a mortal human being, he was a prophet of Allah mandated to spread His message.
Jesus is revered by both religions. To Christians, he is the personification of all that is good in life and after — all the love, hope for redemption from sin, material and spiritual succour during times of trouble, and the promise of everlasting life.
There are, of course, those who believe that the Christ was a mere itinerant preacher who brought a revolutionary message about atonement for sin leading to salvation. But even they admit that his birth was a significant event, even though the religion he founded only came into being years after his death, resurrection and ascension to heaven.
Christianity is, therefore, both a historical fact and an article of faith. The reason why Christians celebrate his birth on this date is not because Pope Julius 1 declared December 25 Christmas Day more than 300 years after the birth of Christ; it is because human beings need someone to believe in, a messiah, and a sanctuary when hopelessness envelopes the world.
Without faith in the hereafter or an existence shorn of all pain and suffering, humanity would sink into the Slough of Despond and wade into the mire of unending misery and desperation.
So the symbolic Christ serves a number of useful functions. But does that belief make humanity any better? Does Christmas have any meaning for the vast majority or is it merely an excuse for them to eat, drink and make merry — or indulge in excesses that may even kill them?
For sure, this season is the best occasion to let go, to meet with friends and reconnect with relatives. Never mind that even that need, which is patently spiritual, is habitually abused. Even the non-believers have a need to forget the drudgery that is their daily life. Thus Christmas answers the twin needs for spiritual and temporal fulfilment.
It would be nice if we regarded Christmas as the season for giving and not expecting anything in return. It would be great if those of us who are not in desperate situations learned to be charitable to the needy in both word and deed.
It should be the season to remember those who are sick in hospital and those languishing in camps for the internally displaced or empathising with those who have lost their loved ones in the periodic inter-ethnic pogroms that are increasingly becoming the order of the day in our country.
But do we really spare a thought for such human beings? Are we not becoming increasingly immersed in our petty little problems?
Let us try to make a difference this festive season, if not to ourselves, at least to others around us. Just because you are not a born-again Christian does not mean that you cannot do good in this season of joy.
But whatever you do, please stay alive. You owe it to yourselves and to your loved ones. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!