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Moving Christmas from sentimentality towards genuine compassion

By Noel Preston - posted Monday, 15 December 2003

Is Christmas really worth the trouble any more? What is the net contribution to society and its members of this religious festival that happens to coincide with our summer holidays?

It’s easy to be cynical about Christmas!

Rather than being an occasion to consider the common good, Christmas has become a consumer binge that extends credit debt to the point of vulnerability for too many Australians, further underlining the widening divide between those who are comfortably affluent and the growing class of others struggling to survive.


Christmas is also over-rated as a family event in a society where fewer and fewer live in the traditional nuclear family. As community welfare groups remind us, the impacts of isolation and domestic stress are generally accentuated at this time.

Even as a Christian feast, Christmas has its critics. It’s not just a question of the core message of Christianity being lost in the Xmas diversions. Even the biblical story of Christ’s birth is problematic. Its mythic elements of angels singing, a virginal conception and the travels of three astrologers make it all sound, to contemporary ears, more like a fairy tale than a festival of God’s incarnation.

In a multicultural, secular society, moreover, the celebration of this Christian festival has some difficulties. How does the local childcare centre respect families of minority cultures while incorporating the nativity scene, Christian carols and the visit of Santa Claus in the end-of-year curriculum?

These are some of the factors which contribute to yuletide cynicism. So much of what is wrong about the way we celebrate Christmas is that it exploits sentimentalism.

But the cynics fail to see that the real challenge of Christmas – and its core values which transcend particular religious denominations – is to move beyond sentiment to realistic compassion.

Christmas invites us as a society to be more compassionate. The essence of its message – peace, goodwill and generosity; the hope generated by a child’s birth; the claim that love is the priority in human affairs – has a timeless yet confronting appeal.


One way of approaching the need to move Christmas from sentiment to compassion is to focus on the well-accepted theme: “Christmas is for children.”

The question becomes: “How can we channel the great love we feel for our own children to all children, especially those millions whose childhood is so painful? All children, but certain children in particular – those in refugee camps and detention centres, those millions who face death this coming year if they are denied medicines that cost no more than the price of a newspaper, those whose parents are in prison, those who are the victims of abuse ...”

Do I really discharge my responsibilities by making donations to charities, or does the Christmas message challenge me also to explore and support a new politics, a new economics and a new sense of community based on compassion and aimed at social justice?

Matthew Fox describes such a new way in A Spirituality Named Compassion:

Do not tell us whether our economy is growing in Gross National Product yearly; rather tell us whether our world-wide economics are accomplishing the following: housing for the homeless, feeding the hungry, educating the ignorant, caring for the sick, humanising the prisons, creating good work for the unemployed, encouraging technology with a human face, passing on nature’s energies to other generations.

The Christmas focus on children, and indeed, future generations of life on earth, is a perspective which moves us beyond cynicism to hope and beyond that to political engagement. Personally I find inspiration for this vocation from the homeless and refugee infant, later Jesus of Nazareth, who compassionately said (to paraphrase the Gospel loosely): "Don't let the children suffer, because there is something divinely precious in every one of them.”

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About the Author

Dr Noel Preston is Adjunct Professor in the Griffith University Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance. He is the author of Understanding Ethics (20O1, Federation Press, Sydney), and several texts on public sector ethics. His web page can be found here.

Noel Preston’s recent book is Beyond the Boundary: a memoir exploring ethics, politics and spirituality (Zeus Publications).

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Noel Preston
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Feature: Christmas? Bah, humbug!
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