THE Newcastle Herald is not published on Christmas Day, so we take this final opportunity to wish our readers the traditional salutation of a very merry Christmas.
Christmas, like many so-called “traditions” is in fact a steadily changing concept, and one that for many Australians has moved a considerable distance from its original, Christian, beginnings as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Like our nation itself, Christmas is no longer entirely a Christian celebration.
In the 1966 census, a full 88 per cent of Australians identified as Christians. By 1991, the Australian Bureau of Statistics says, the figure had fallen to 74 per cent. In the 2016 census, Christianity remained the most popular religion in the country, but the number of Christians had fallen to 52 per cent of the population, a decline of 60 per cent in 50 years. Indeed, 30 per cent of 2016 census respondents said they had no religion, and for Australians such as these, Christian imagery of the baby Jesus probably has very little, if any, role to play in their celebration of December 25. Even Father Christmas has moved an enormous distance in the public imagination from the original inspiration, the 4th century Greek bishop Saint Nicholas of Myra.
Today, Christmas has become the justification for an enormous bout of “retail therapy”, starting with the rounds of present buying in the lead-up to the day itself, and continuing with the Boxing Day sales that are now an established part of the business calendar.
Traditionalists will no doubt decry the modern Christmas for its loss of spiritual engagement, but it is equally valid to say that the public have voted with their feet, and will be taking their holidays at Australia’s alternative spiritual altar, the beach.
For those who will be marking Christmas at church, it will be impossible to avoid the reverberations of the royal commission, and the report it handed down on December 15.
Institutions caught by this investigation, and others internationally, have all promised to change, but the images from Rome this week, of Pope Francis praying for a “merciful judgement’ on the disgraced former bishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law – with no mention of him covering up for paedophile priests – has led observers to question whether the message has really sunk in. For the sake of the children this Christmas, we hope it has.