Although the holiday of Christmas does not have a biblical origin and did not exist in the days of the early church, most Christians around the world keep it as a reminder of the miracle of Jesus Christ’s birth. However, the religious significance of the holiday is waning in the Western world, as the number of church members decreases and Bible illiteracy increases.
America is considered the bastion of the developed Christian world, the only advanced country that has not yet completely fallen to secularism. Even there, however, sociological studies show that generations of American adults characterized by adherence to Christianity and a practical devotion to their faith are aging and disappearing. They are being “replaced” by generations of young people who are less inclined to identify with the Christian religion or become involved Christians.
America is likely to “grow less religious even if those who are adults today maintain their current levels of religious commitment” experts at the Pew Research Center say. While 80% of American adults today profess faith in God, only 47% believe that the Bible is inspired by God, and this number decreases amongst younger people. Of American millennials—those between the ages of 18 and 35—more than 50% (a growing percentage) believe that the Bible contains ancient myths. This state of affairs is also reflected around Christmas.
Christmas, a religious or cultural holiday?
A recent survey conducted by LifeWay Research shows that a growing percentage of Americans believe that the winter holidays should be more cultural and less religious. In 2014, 92% of American Christians thought that the Christmas holidays should focus more on the life of Jesus Christ. Now the percentage has dropped to 81%, and 28% among non-religious Americans.
Asked if they find it offensive for someone to wish them “Happy Holidays!” instead of “Merry Christmas!”, 40% of American Christians responded positively, but the percentage of the general American population is 32%. The likelihood of this being considered an offense increases with age and the frequency of church attendance. We should not be surprised that young people are not offended, since they do not even know the significance of the holiday very well. A survey conducted among British millennials, for example, shows that 2 out of 5 young people do not know who Joseph and Mary are, nor do they know who the baby in the famous nativity scene is.
The LifeWay poll confirms last year’s Pew Research Center report that of the 90% of Americans who celebrate Christmas, only 55% still consider it to be a religious holiday and only 57% still believe in the main elements of Jesus’s birth story, like, for instance, Mary being a virgin, down from 65% in 2014.
This state of affairs leads most 55-year-old American Christians to say that the United States is waging a “war on Christmas”. The percentage of the general population who believe this amounts to 39%, according to a YouGov poll. “It’s likely that Christians and older Americans are nostalgic for previous years or reluctant to acknowledge that not everyone celebrates Christmas this time of year. Many have the idea that most Americans are the same or that we share one culture of baseball, apple pie, and Christmas, but that’s not the case. And when we encounter someone who believes differently from us, that can be jarring and even seem offensive for some,” says Scott McConnell, director of LifeWay Research.
Is the secularization of Christmas a bad thing?
Christmas is, above all, a birthday celebration. The Bible, however, does not mention that the birth of Jesus, or that of any believer for that matter, should be celebrated, nor is there any indication that the early church celebrated it. On the contrary, the Bible mentions only two people who celebrated their birthdays, none of them Christians, their stories being given as negative examples. Furthermore, the date of Jesus’s birth is unknown to this day. Even Origen of Alexandria writes that, at that time, only “sinners” celebrated their birthdays.
The first mention of Christmas appears in a Roman almanac dating from the 4th century AD and marks an overlap with the celebration of the winter solstice in the Roman calendar (December 25). Therefore it might seem at least bizarre for Christians to be indignant at hearing a seasons greeting that does not contain the name of Christ, since His name had nothing to do with such a holiday in the first place.
For these reasons, Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas in both England and America, but during slavery, Christmas celebrations were resumed and used as a tool for the forced evangelization of African slaves. The sensitive history of the holiday should be taken into account when considering how appropriate it is to celebrate it.
The real problem of Christmas secularization after so many decades of celebration is reflected in the declining number of people who still believe in the biblical story of Jesus’s birth. Should it be completely abandoned? Some will say yes, since it is hard to believe that postmodern humans would be persuaded to believe in a “baseless ritual”. Nevertheless, statistics show that for a majority of American Christians, Christmas focuses on Jesus and is undoubtedly an opportunity to talk to others about Jesus.
Should this opportunity be abandoned, for the sake of cultural diversity or on account of aspects related to the unbiblical origin of the holiday? Or should we make wise use of one of the few occasions when a believer can more easily engage in evangelism in a natural and appropriate way, precisely because of cultural diversity and relativism?
Perhaps the problem with non-Christians is not so much that they reject the subject of the holiday a priori, but that believers have been embroiled in a semantic cultural war in which they have proved to be extremely sensitive, instead of using this opportunity to authentically convey what God has done for people through the incarnation and birth of Jesus Christ. Every believer should decide for themselves whether or not they want to give Christmas a special meaning, and the way in which they want to relate to this day, making sure that their decision is based on the right motivation.