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More than 2,000 years ago, by historical records if not by a poorly calculated calendar, the most influential child in history was born into poverty in the Mideast. Tradition designates today for the celebration of that birth.

It is at heart a Christian holiday, marked but not spiritually observed by other faiths. Nevertheless, it has gained paramount importance in our culture -- not least because of its excessive commercialization in a society increasingly driven by materialism.

But somewhere between the tolling of church bells and the ringing of cash registers, this day still brings a common thread of hope to humanity. It's a day when most of us stop to consider the web of relationships that bind us to each other, and to the world. It's a day not just to tear open presents, but to examine the heart and unwrap the soul.

That, of course, is at the core of our favorite Christmas classics, from Ebenezer Scrooge on the printed page to Jimmy Stewart on the silver screen. It's also why Boy Scout Troop 411 from Hamburg will be doling out meals to the needy at the Salvation Army today, its quiet charity mirrored by other volunteers in other food pantries and soup kitchens throughout the region. It's the reason why hundreds of News readers contributed cash and toys to the Neediest Fund, and why donors are supporting the City Mission's ongoing drive for funds to expand its facilities for the homeless.

The gifts that will count the most today are not those that consume the most megabytes or glitter the brightest or make the splashiest statement of fashion. The gifts that matter today will be the ones given with love. What mattered most to the Christ Child, in his newly assumed humanity, wasn't gold or frankincense or myrrh -- it was a mother's touch, and the warmth of a stable.

Today is a holiday of joy, embodying hope and celebrating the deepest possible sense of peace. Whatever your faith or belief, that's a commemoration worth not only sharing but extending into the year, century and millennium yet to come -- and a gift worth giving to the future.

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