Christmas is a time when religion meets US-style enterprise. Despite its manifold and, some say, crass modifications, the capacity of Christmas and other traditional celebrations to hold us together remains undiminished.
As Christmas beckons I find myself wondering whether this and other religious and cultural festivals such as Passover and Ramadan share common ground. After all, they bind us in our humanity, but remind us of our unique origins and experiences and affirm the importance of our community life and renewal.
Rituals are deeply embedded memories and traditions that have been carried on the migratory journeys of people and adapted to new environments. Santa Claus decked out in his winter gear has been lugged from the northern hemisphere winter to the dry heat of an Australian summer without a change of clothes.
Many in Australia will celebrate Christmas on beaches, a sundeck or under a mango tree. If it is not a fire danger day, the Aussie barbecue, with its slabs of meat, salad and beer, will replace the traditional cold climate Christmas meal of pudding and roast.
Our indigenous peoples know deeply that rituals and traditions are the connecting threads that provide us with a sense of our familial and ancestral history. Without them we can become lost. But, paradoxically, if rituals become rigid and fail to adjust to altering circumstances, they can lose their power and meaning.
This occurs when we go through the motions but do not necessarily engage in the spirit of the occasion — when we dutifully turn up, but our hearts are not in it. In all but extremely dysfunctional families, the legitimacy of the day rests with what we confer on it. Being mindful of the passing of life and expressing genuine pleasure in the company of those we love or who are significant in our lives is the deal maker. For some whose family history has been a source of pain rather than a nurturing environment this might mean creating a new "family" of friends.
We also need to reassess the culture of excess that seems to go into a frenzy over the festive season. We overeat and over consume, bestowing often unwanted gifts on recipients who must feign gratitude so as not to offend. As the planet groans under our weight it is time to reassess the tradition of plentitude and overindulgence — a legacy of the yuletide winter solstice and pagan festivities that are part of "ye olde Christmas".
Despite all, at their best, these traditions provide a celebration of continuity, comfort, company, family and community. They mark time, but reassure us that some things still remain, if not the same, at least recognisable.
Some celebrate with prayers and carols, and above all, the iconic Christmas lunch. But many have an "early Christmas", to gather in disparate groups that reflect divorce and separation. It is possible to have four or more sets of grandparents to visit. As a result of split relationships, many find themselves experiencing a force-feeding at multiple Christmas feasts. Like the Vicar of Dibley who politely and agonisingly consumes three enormous Christmas lunches in succession.
And the festive season can also sharpen awareness of change and loss. These are times when wounds can be reopened. The lonely are more lonely and the season may bring a heightened risk of suicide.
The absence of dead relatives and friends is felt keenly. This may be the loss of a grandparent who spanned the decades and held generations of memories.
The survivors of the Queensland and Victorian floods will experience their first Christmas since the disasters. Some are in temporary homes and have lost all memorabilia of the past or worse are now without much loved family members. Many will fear this time of year. There will be new homes but a need to reconstruct their way of remembering the experience.
But perhaps the most forgotten among us are the homeless, who at best will have the "tradition" of a lunch served by kindly volunteers in a church hall or other charitable venue or do nothing at all. They are left as outsiders.
In these times of fast-paced change, the observance of time-worn and adapted, even kitsch, traditions has become more important and powerful. All of us, including the dislocated and the grieving may find comfort in some form of celebration, however different from past years.
The raison d'etre remains the same. Connecting with family, friends and our communities; farewelling the passings and embracing the time to come with hope.
Lyn Bender is a psychologist. @lynestel on twitter Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by calling Lifeline 131 114, Mensline 1300 789 978, Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.