CHRISTMAS IN Hong Kong, as we all know, starts the day after Halloween and ends in the early weeks of the new year, fading out in that mysterious transition when the festive decorations glittering above the waterfront segue into the Lunar New Year illuminations. But what is the story behind this magical time of year? The cynic might say Christmas symbolises the enduring success of capitalism, as brilliantly manifested in our financial hub of a city, and that its purest expression lies in retail marketing and frenetic shopping-mall consumerism. But Christmas is also a life-affirming occasion, and one that dominates the end-of-year mood. Lest we forget, Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ in the Holy Land town of Bethlehem. Tradition and holy writ tell us that Christ spent most of his working life as a carpenter in the vicinity of the Sea of Galilee, before announcing his spiritual mission. His death on the cross made him one of the world's first revolutionaries and a champion of social justice. More than 2 billion Christians (and legions of non-believers) celebrate Christ's birth in the most joy-giving ways they can think of. This is the time of year when churches see peak attendance and families and friends exchange gifts and extend the spirit of goodwill to all. The choice of December 25 as Christmas Day is arbitrary. Biblical scholars are unable to conclusively decide on a birth date for Jesus. You may have wondered why Christmas is often represented as 'Xmas'. The letter X in Greek is the initial of Khristos, Greek for Christ. Christmas has become a truly inclusive season the world over, with Christians and non-Christians alike joining in the festivities. Here, on the traditionally Buddhist-Taoist-Confucian south coast of China, Christmas is surpassed only by the Lunar New Year as a time for good tidings and family togetherness. Christmas began in the distant frosted past as a pagan winter festival in pre-Christian North Europe. Pagan elements still form part of the festivities as they are observed today. The Yuletide log, the holly and the mistletoe and the Christmas tree - all have their origins in those ancient winter rites. References to the winter solstice celebration Yule are found in the old annals of Iceland, the Scandinavian Peninsula, the British Isles, the Low Countries and Germany. As Christianity spread across Europe during and after the Roman Empire, the first waves of missionaries gave Yule a new interpretation. Christmas, as we know it today, first took shape in the time of Pope Gregory I (590-604 AD). Christmas is viewed primarily as a Christian celebration, even in officially atheist nations such as the People's Republic of China, where the festive season gets grander with each year. Brad Hicks, the pastor who leads Lantau Island's Discovery Bay International Community Church, says 'Christmas is all about gifts' as he recalls his childhood in North America. 'Opening the presents stuffed into our stockings hung by the chimney was terrific fun. At breakfast we read the Bible story of Christmas, and after breakfast we would race off to the Christmas tree for more gifts. We thought 12 months too long a wait for the next Christmas, and prayed for Christmas to come twice a year.' He says he relives his Christmas past through his two daughters. 'Gifts under the tree, from friends and family afar, are opened, and somewhere in the middle of all the chaos the Bible story is read. And my two girls say they are glad Christmas comes twice a year.' Twice a year? 'My childhood prayer for two Christmases was finally answered, but some background first. In early 1995, my wife and I applied to adopt a Chinese infant. That year, at Christmas, we received a special gift. It came inside an envelope, delivered not by Santa but by FedEx. We opened the envelope to find a picture of a child wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a foster home. Her name was Beibei. We were told the name was Putonghua for 'treasured gift'. We have received no better Christmas gift. And this miracle of a story was repeated in 1999 [when we adopted our second child]. 'Every year our two girls know a second Christmas. It's called Adoption Day, and is another day for gifts. We consider this day our true Christmas. Beibei is now an 11-year-old answering to the name of Ellen, and her younger sister is Zoe. We believe in God, and we have received his gift of adoption.' Pastor Hicks quotes from the Bible: 'For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only child into the world so that whoever believes could receive the right to be called the children of God' (John 1:12, 3:16). Nelson Ng, pastor of the Hong Kong non-denominational church Oiktos, finds the festive season a fascinating cross-cultural experience. 'When I was a child I looked forward to Christmas. It meant parties and gifts from family members and friends. Even though I studied in a religious school in Hong Kong, Christmas remained just a holiday to have fun and nothing more than that. 'After I finished high school here and moved to North America, Christmas became even better. My dreams of a white Christmas came true. After some time, I came to understand what it meant to have a personal faith in Jesus Christ. That changed my life and my perspective on Christmas. It was no longer just a holiday for parties and gifts. It became a time to remember that God became man and came to Earth to save us. 'I lived in North America for more than 15 years and worked as a pastor for a while. Christmas is very different there from what it is here. There, the season is very rich and joyful, but people get caught up in the celebration to the point that it even affects Christians and churches over there. People are so busy shopping for gifts and preparing for parties that they forget the real reason for the season. It was as if we were having a birthday party and had bought birthday gifts but forgotten to invite the birthday boy himself to the party. 'I moved back to Hong Kong in 1997 to work as a pastor here. Even though Christmas is not that much a part of our culture, we are closing the gap with North America as far as enjoying the holiday goes. Even in China, Christmas is becoming more popular. 'Churches here still have a lot of work to do to tell people about the real reason for Christmas, which many Hong Kong churches are doing. Instead of throwing parties, churches are inviting non-Christian families and friends to come and hear the story of Christmas - why Jesus came to be among us and what that means to us. 'There has been talk recently of cutting down the number of Christmas public holidays from two to one. To my mind, this is not an important issue. Personally, the happiest thing about celebrating Christmas is to know Jesus and enjoy him.' Over the past two millennia, Christmas has spread out from Bethlehem, its place of birth in the Holy Land, to extend across the Roman Empire, along the Silk Road and spice trade routes, across seas and to just about every corner of the Earth. The Christmas message, which incorporates peaceful coexistence and the grace of forgiveness, travels well because of its universal theme. Merry Christmas - whatever your faith - and goodwill to all.