Americans see more jingle, less Jesus in Christmas celebrations

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WASHINGTON (RNS) — If there ever was a “war on Christmas” in America, Santa may have won.

Nine in 10 U.S. adults celebrate the holiday, according to the Pew Research Center. However, that celebration is shifting in a secular direction. And a growing number of Christians discount key elements of the biblical Nativity story.

Just three years ago, 51 percent of U.S. adults said Christmas for them is more a religious holiday than a cultural one. But that has slipped to 46 percent in the new Pew survey, released Tuesday (Dec. 12). Neither does this trend trouble most people. Only 32 percent say it “bothers” them even somewhat.

President Trump’s demand that Americans all say “Merry Christmas,” which drew cheers at his rallies, now draws shrugs from most U.S. adults: 52 percent say it doesn’t matter how they are greeted in stores and businesses, and 32 percent say they prefer to hear “Merry Christmas.”

The survey also finds a “striking shift” in the overall share of people — down from 65 percent in 2014 to 57 percent today — who believe four key elements of the biblical Nativity story.

  • Jesus was born to a virgin: From 73 percent to 66 percent.
  •  Baby Jesus was laid in a manger: From 81 percent to 75 percent.
  • Wise men, guided by a star, brought Jesus gifts: From 75 percent to 68 percent.
  • An angel announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds: From 74 percent to 67 percent.

There’s slippage among both Protestants and Catholics. The Pew report notes the share of white mainline Protestants who believe in the virgin birth, for instance, has dropped from 83 percent to 71 percent. And the share of Catholics who believe the birth of Jesus was announced by an angel of the Lord now stands at 82 percent, down from 90 percent.

And the narrative doesn’t fly with most “nones” – people who claim no religious identification: 53 percent reject all four elements, up from 42 percent in 2014.

Christian culture-watchers say they’ve seen these trends gathering strength for years. Rather than despair, however, they see openings to evangelize about the Incarnation — God sending his son to be a savior.

“It’s not surprising, that as the culture grows more secular, fewer people find the Nativity story authentic, or even meaningful,” said the Rev. James Martin, editor at large of the Jesuit magazine America.

“But for the Christian, however, it is essential. The Incarnation is one of the key beliefs of Christianity. Many people find it hard to believe: God becoming human, after all, is hard to fathom. But we have a God who is, at heart, mystery, and therefore unfathomable,” the priest said.

The survey captures how “too many people think Christmas is about a mall and not a manger,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. 

“On the upside, and Christians always look at the upside, as fewer people celebrate Christmas without knowing the story of Christ, we have the opportunity to tell them why Jesus came, why he lived and died, and ultimately that he rose again — changing everything for Christians, not just one day,” said Stetzer.

The Pew survey of 1,503 U.S. adults, conducted by phone Nov. 29 to Dec. 4, has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points overall.

About the author

Cathy Lynn Grossman

Cathy Lynn Grossman specializes in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. She also writes frequently on biomedical ethics and end-of-life-issues


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  • This will of course, lead to more government. Taxes will increase as the government overtakes healthcare, increases welfare and housing benefits, replaces private industries with public industries, increases the size of military, the size and influence of the police, public transportation services will increase, as well as public education. Progress is merely a codeword for the religion of statism. The myth of statism might be less mystical, but it’s a myth no less. We do not need to go back 2000 years to see that statism/marxism/interventionism is a complete failure, which not only leads to massive debts, inferior services, income taxes in excess of 50%, but will lead to the murder of dissidents, which in the 20th century alone, rose above 100 billion deaths.

    Statism is a myth, and it’s not merry.

  • Wait a second…how did we get from secularizing Christmas with statism? Taking Christ out of Christmas is going to increase taxes?

  • How don’t we? The interests of those wanting do away with Christianity, either in full affect, or reducing it to a set of anti-capitalistic morals and social issues (Progressive Christianity), are almost perfecting aligned with those wanting more government. This is true in America with the Left, it’s true in Europe & Australia, and it’s currently and historically true with Marxism across Europe and Asia.

    There is a small overlap of Libertarians and Atheists, but they are mostly indifferent, not hostile to Christianity as those on the left are.

  • I think you see more of a connection than actually exists. Secularism often is the result of people no longer finding meaning in religion rather than a carefully contrived goal of the left.

  • Those statistics show a significant change in religious beliefs in just three years. People sometimes do change their minds about religious beliefs, but it usually takes longer and occurs more gradually. However, this change can also be observed in other Western countries, so something is happening to religious belief overall.

    For some reason, religion has lost much of its power, but I’m not sure it has yet been adequately explained..

  • -> …”Christian culture-watchers say they’ve seen these trends gathering strength for years. Rather than despair, however, they see openings to evangelize about the Incarnation — God sending his son to be a savior.”

    What makes anyone think that once an incoherent story is rejected, anyone would believe again. God sends his son instead of just forgiving us himself, which he could have easily done without the Roman sado-masochistic killing? Someone being punished for my misdeeds is immoral. Was anyone asked if a savior is needed?

    -> …”Many people find it hard to believe: God becoming human, after all, is hard to fathom. But we have a God who is, at heart, mystery, and therefore unfathomable,” the priest said.”

    If true, then nobody should believe or have faith in something unfathomable…a permanent mystery. And some wonder why less people believe in these Christmas myths !!

  • If the baby Jesus was laid in a manger, where did the Virgin Mary get laid? It all seems so mystifying.

  • Considering how much religion is used to fuel hate, I’m inclined to say religion’s loss of power is a plus. And I say that as a faithful Anglican Christian.

  • Nononononononono.

    Everything is the fault of the left, and comin’ to take their guns, Hillary, Benghazi, and her emails.

    And Geyz! Geyz! Don’t forget the Geyz, forced abortions

  • It has been at least 45 years since I first began to try to reconcile how the average Christian celebrates Christmas with the meaning of Advent and Christmas Day. Corporations to small businesses benefit from Christmas (in fact for many businesses critical to bottom line for the year) undercutting the religious message of hope, love and joy. and the promise of the Christ’s return with average spending of close to $1000 per shopper according to The American Research Group for Christmas 2017. As I grew older, I realized that there were many who could not participate in the commercial Christmas which reinforced my sense of disconnect with a fundamental religious event essential to being Christian with the public face of Christmas.

    BTW anti-capitalism is a value, not a moral.

  • You realize, of course, that every other industrialized nation in the world has single-payer healthcare. Most have stronger social welfare programs and better public schools than we do. And many of them have explicitly religious societies. The head of the UK, Queen Elizabeth, is a religious figure in the church of England.

    I somehow doubt a shift to secularism is going to result in our military getting any bigger, since religious conservatives are the most hawkish group there is. But the US explicitly not a Christian nation and we do spend more on our military than the next 10 nations put together, so maybe there is a correlation there. Who here thinks a more Christian, and therefore Republican (since they’re basically the same thing), government would result in us reducing our military size?

    Also not sure how secular Christmas holidays result on better public transit, but that’s one I’m all for!

  • We might note that the Puritans who settled New England, the spiritual ancestors of today’s Religious Right, forbade the celebration of Christmas until into the 19th century.

  • I think people are much more open now to questioning their beliefs and willing to not simply acquiesce to tradition/community expectations. Of course, this has been going on for a long time but our increasingly secular culture makes it much easier.

  • And we might note that there were some of the more conservative Christians that did no celebrate Christmas until well into the 20th century, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses still do not.

  • Also many Church of Christ congregations do not. And I recall that when LBJ was president the Wash Post ran a story with photo showing the Secret Service peering at his church in DC on Xmas when it was closed. LBJ had forgtten that his own church did not do Xmas.

  • “Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honour of the god Saturn, held on 17 December of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through to 23 December.”

    It never went anywhere. Still not on December 25th. In fact no pagan holiday including the winter solstice, Yule, or any other non-christian holiday falls on December 25th.

    Nobody is forcing anybody to celebrate Christmas. Celebrate Saturnalia if that is what you want to celebrate and leave the Christians alone.

  • What’s so merry about Christmas without Christ? Are we just gathering and feasting for what then? If you’re looking to history I can tell you those holidays and festivals aren’t on December 25th either.

  • Then celebrate something you DO believe in. December 25th is ONE day! So why are we secularizing it!? We chose to exchange gifts on Thanksgiving this year. Nobody forces you to partake in something you don’t believe in. Christ is being stripped from Christmas in favor of a gift exchange party which can be done on thanksgiving or traditionally done on New Years Day even. But oh Santa Claus n stuff… can’t believe in Christ, but gotta do Santa Claus…. smh….