Tonight, Christians around the planet will celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. But long before Jesus was born in a Bethlehem stable, these days in December were given over by human societies to midwinter feasting; the depths of the gloomiest and most barren season has always been an occasion for celebration. Today, most of us mix the two traditions. Religious observance dovetails with secular carousing.
Yet there will be a shadow over many homes this festive season in the form of a rapidly worsening global economic downturn. The spectres of unemployment, home repossessions and bankruptcy loom frighteningly large. And in the wider world too, ominous clouds cluster overhead in the shape of Islamist terrorism, starvation for the world's most desperate and potentially catastrophic global warming. For all sorts of reasons, optimism seems less abundant this Christmas than it has in recent years.
But we would maintain that there are still grounds for hope, even some cheer, this Christmas. One hopeful event stands out above all others: 2008 is likely to be remembered by historians not only as the year of the great economic meltdown, but of the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the world's most powerful nation. The American President-elect has made it clear that he will treat the threat of runaway climate change with the urgency it deserves. Providing Mr Obama is as good as his word, this is one compelling reason for every inhabitant of the planet to feel more optimistic about the years to come.
Casting around for other reasons for cheer, we might care to count our blessings as a species. Infant mortality is lower than at any time in history. Lethal diseases such as malaria, smallpox and cholera (despite its ghastly resurgence in Zimbabwe) have been eradicated in large parts of the globe. Human life expectancy is rising. These are not facts that make the news too often, but they affect us all profoundly.
And the longer lives that we enjoy are generally of a superior quality to that of previous eras. Here in Britain, we live in a more inclusive and equal society than ever before. Women are no longer formally treated as second-class citizens. Gay people have the right to enter into civil partnerships. Discrimination on the basis of skin colour or ethnic origin is legally prohibited. There is a great distance left to travel towards the destination of true equality. And some benighted parts of the world are even going backwards. But can there be any doubt that great progress has been made too?
Of course there can be no disguising that there is economic pain to come in the New Year. But we sometimes forget that uncertainty and even suffering are an inescapable part of the human condition; enduring them is part of being alive. And if the downturn prompts us to pay more attention to our family and friends, rather than the all-consuming pursuit of money, the downturn need not be so disastrous. It might even end up yielding some good.
It is also worth remembering at a time like this how remarkably resilient human beings are. Religious belief is vitally important to a lot of people. That will help them through the difficult times to come. Others will place their confidence in mankind's historic ability to listen to the better angels of our nature, even in the face of great adversity. So our advice for all our readers, whether religious or not, is to keep faith this Christmas.