Cary McMullen: Pew survey shows Christmas losing religious value

From the folks at the Pew Research Center, these survey results just in: Only about half of Americans (51 percent) consider Christmas a religious holiday. Almost a third (32 percent) consider it a cultural holiday.

My reaction: Gee, ya think?

I attended a staff luncheon this week at my place of employment, a nominally Christian college, at which we sang Christmas songs. Among the requests: “Jingle Bell Rock,” “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”), “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Those not requested included “Joy to the World” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” although tongue-in-cheek (sort of), I requested “Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light.” Bach just isn’t very hummable.

I don’t know why anyone might be surprised by the Pew survey. What we hear on the radio and see on TV this time of year is a barometer of our culture. It has a lot to do with the commercial and the sentimental and very little to do with the observance of the incarnation of Jesus Christ (although an amazing 73 percent of all surveyed said they believe Jesus was born of a virgin). The survey gave us data on what we intuitively knew already.

Even among groups you would expect to be the most devout, there were some cultural-Christmas views. White evangelical Protestants had the highest percentage of religious-holiday responders, at 82 percent. Among white Catholics, the figure was 66 percent. For black Protestants, it was 60 percent.

Not surprising either were the results that showed the most-cultural, least-religious group of Christmas revelers is Americans 18 to 29 years old. Just 39 percent of this group believed Christmas is primarily a religious holiday. Previous Pew surveys have shown decreasing religious affiliation among this segment of the population, with about 20 percent now designated as “nones,” as in no affiliation.

The Pew survey also yielded some rather sad conclusions about how holiday traditions are eroding. Of those whose families sent Christmas cards when they were children (86 percent), only 65 percent do so now, perhaps another casualty of the Internet. Sixty-six percent said their families gave homemade gifts, including baked goods, as a child, but only 58 percent say they do so now. And caroling has really taken a hit, falling from 36 percent a generation ago to 16 percent now.

Although some commentators (are you listening, Cal Thomas?) might see the rise of cultural Christmas as an alarming erosion of our nation’s religious practice and heritage, I suspect it has always been thus to some degree. Even in times regarded now as more pristine, such as colonial America, there were large segments of the population who saw Christmas as little more than a midwinter occasion for a party. The English Yule log has its origins in Saxon paganism, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, probably describing 16th-century England rather than medieval Denmark, comments on the wassailing celebrations that included setting off cannons.

For those of us who do in fact observe Christmas as religious holiday, rather than lamenting the situation, I advise embracing it. By that I mean it is an opportunity to be distinctive. It’s market segmentation, if you like. Capitulating to the cultural observances might be fun, but it can give you a spiritual (or literal) hangover. Of course, there are more profound reasons to believe that Christmas is about God’s love and care for the world, but if you’re trying to reclaim a little corner of the true meaning of Christmas (as opposed to the winter solstice), you could start by turning off the radio the next time “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” comes on.

OK, so that one’s not so hard. Merry Christmas.

Guest Author


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