WITH SLEIGH BELLS ringing and Rudolph's red nose casting a warm glow, it becomes easy to forget what this time of year is really all about.

Christmas, which is at its roots and essence a religious observance, has over the years evolved into a national holiday — a sort of Fourth of July for the spirit, a Thanksgiving for having loved ones, a birthday for every man, every woman and every child on which everyone gets to unwrap presents.

While purists may lament its increasingly commercialized nature, there is a deep human need for Christmas. Had it not been given to mankind by way of the birth of Jesus Christ, more than 2,000 years ago, we would doubtless have had to otherwise invent it.

The religious meaning of Christmas, with its message of hope both on Earth and in the hereafter, must never be eclipsed by what the holiday has evolved into. Yet, there is a great and wonderful message to be learned from the independent presence of Santa Claus, Rudolph and all their assorted elves and baubles of the season.

THESE HAVE BECOME the trappings, the outer ornaments of something more important. Like any of this season's gaily wrapped gifts, one must pull off the bows and rip away the paper to find out what's really inside. As with all things human, it is what's inside that really counts.

Christmas has become a universal moment of hope, peace, goodwill. In a sense, it has transcended its religious beginnings. Many who celebrate it are neither religious nor churchgoers nor even Christians.

Yet, observe it they do. Yet, get into the spirit of it they do.

Yes, there are those more interested in what they get than what they give. This is, after all, the real world and not a spiritual one.

Were this the most perfect of all worlds there would probably not be a need for a Christmas. Every single day would be a Christmas. That is a goal; that must always be a goal.

However, in this less-than-perfect world, one must never lose sight of how remarkable it is that, on even a single day, so many millions of souls can be united by such common bonds. Christmas has become that one special time of year when we all become most like each other — and come closest to liking each other.

CHRISTMAS HAS evolved into a time when most — one would hope that someday all — do something to help those in need find a way to share the universal warmth and good feelings of the holiday. This has less to do with Christianity than with basic charity and empathy for one's fellow man.

Christmas has become a time when one remembers loved ones and friends, near or far, with tokens of affection whether they be presents or greeting cards.

It has become, more than any other time or any other celebration, a time when the common bonds of birth and existence, of home and hearth, of nation and planet, of heaven and universal yearnings, are melded into a single force that all feel.

It is a time when the power is with us — the power of shared emotions, shared feelings, shared concerns, shared hopes, shared burdens, shared solutions, shared love.

Christmas, even without its religious foundation, has come to stand for hope. It has come to magnify the importance of the betterment of the human condition.

It is about goodwill toward man not so much by God, though his goodwill is much to be desired, but the goodwill of man toward his fellow man.

THIS IS THE TRUE gift of Christmas.

It is a gift that would bring a smile to the face of a babe in Bethlehem.

This editorial first appeared in the Rome News-Tribune in 1990 and has been reprinted every Christmas since. The sentiments it expresses about this special annual holiday are everlasting ones.

 A Savior is born

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.

(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David).

To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherd said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

Luke 2:1-20, King James Version