Even for those of us who are not formally religious, there is a certain magic about this time of year; this is after all, the ancient feast of the solstice, that profound moment when the sun begins to come back to us, out of the winter dark. In Christian terms, both Christmas and Easter - carefully grafted on to much more ancient celebrations, as Christianity arrived in northern Europe - are feasts of redemption; and across our society, they both now tend, at their best, to be seen as festivals of hope, the moments in the year when we dare to feel, however briefly, that light may after all drive out darkness, and the force of life prove stronger than death itself.
All of which gives this Christmas a special significance, at the end of a year when the forces of darkness seemed to gain a whole new dimension of power in our politics, and in our world. It’s always easy to take for granted a political and social system that has been around for more than two generations, particularly when it is working fairly well, at least for us in the relatively comfortable west. Yet every part of the broadly peaceful post-war settlement in which we in the UK have lived, for the last 70 years, was carefully laid down following the Second World War, in a collective act of will which decided, in the aftermath of Nazism and its horrors, that our society should be based on enlightenment values of peace, justice, equality and democracy as expressed in documents like the UN Charter and the European Convention on Human Rights; and should work to express those, ever more fully.
2016, though, was the year when that process finally seemed to shudder to a halt, and to give way to some kind of “new endarkenment”. It’s clear, of course, that individual people had many reasons for voting for Donald Trump, and for voting to leave the far-from perfect EU. Whatever their personal motives, though, the result of the wafer-thin votes in which they triumphed this year has been to roll back the progressive tide of post-war history, and to put in jeopardy not only many of the social gains made over the last generation, but the post-war settlement itself. Britain’s exit is an existential hammer-blow to the EU and its ideal of ever-closer union, delivered at what was already a difficult time. And the election of Donald Trump - who had spent his campaign expressing openly racist and sexist attitudes, and an absolute contempt for the very concept of human rights - broke so many previous taboos and established principles in American politics that it is genuinely difficult to see where that great country now stands in relation to its own constitution, never mind to any other issue of the day.
So now, the ordinary people of Europe and the United States face the most critical choices we have confronted since 1945. There are those - present in impressive numbers on the streets of Berlin this week, following the horrific terror attack on a Christmas market - who clearly oppose the new politics of hate, and stand against it with courage and resolution. There are those who have embraced the politics of hate to the point where they cannot be shifted, adopting a whole range of delusional beliefs in support of their position.
And then there are the most interesting group of all, the ones who are decent people with the same aspirations as most others, but who have allowed themselves - so far as politics and voting behaviour is concerned - to be drawn into the sensational parallel reality of the political world created by some sections of both conventional and online media; the world where Barack Obama is an African-born Muslim terrorist, where Hillary Clinton is a known serial child abuser, where most of the Syrian or North African refugees admitted into Europe are convicted rapists causing a huge “tide of rape” across the continent, and where terror attacks - which in fact kill infinitesimally small numbers worldwide, compared for example with road accidents - are daily occurrences justifying massive authoritarian crackdowns and abridgment of freedom.
And it is this nightmare vision of a closed society, created in response to that parallel world, that has to be most vigorously opposed now. A society built on such lies will fail even in its own terms. And the greatest antidote to the dehumanising lies in which so many have come to believe is the reality of contact with others in real human communities; it’s no accident, for example, that the regions of the UK most fearful of migration are the ones where there are barely any migrants at all.
So my passionate wish for this Christmas is that ordinary citizens will increasingly wake up and smell the coffee, stop allowing their views to be manipulated in ways that are deeply dangerous to their world and to coming generations, and start engaging with the world around them in ever more creative ways. The message from the citizens of Berlin this week was one of calm resistance and clear-sighted courage, in the face of deranged violence by a tiny minority. And only when citizens across the western world combine to make an irresistible force of that kind of popular wisdom will some of our politicians find the strength to stop reading from the terrorists’ script, and to start reading from ours.
Now, too many of them obligingly talk of “war”, of a clash of cultures, of crackdowns and of closed borders, handing terrorist groups exactly the images of civil war and division that they crave, out of all proportion to their actual strength. Yet as we celebrate the birth of the one who told us that vengeance is for fools, and that the greater wisdom is to turn the other cheek and to show love for those who hate you, it’s perhaps not too daring to hope that ordinary citizens - acting, living and working together - may yet be able to halt this spiral into a politics of hate driven by so few; and to live as the many have always wished to do, in a peace, in justice, and in goodwill.