You may not know it from the ever-present Christmas trees, lights, and wreaths, but American attitudes toward Christmas are shifting. A recent Pew study found that while 90 percent of Americans still celebrate Christmas in some form, 56 percent believe that the holiday’s religious elements are stressed less than they used to be. And according to the poll, few seem to care that Christ is being taken out of Christmas: Only 32 percent say this development bothers them either “a lot” or “some.”
In another finding, a bare majority of Americans believe in the essential elements of the biblical Christmas story — the Annunciation, the virgin birth, the laying of the infant Jesus in a manger, and the Wise Men.
These findings are both the cause and the effect of Christmas revolving around things other than the celebration of the birth of the Savior — the convening of family and other loved ones and, of course, gift giving.
For many Americans, Christmas commences on Black Friday and ends the moment the last present has been opened on Christmas Day. This is in large part a product of our commercial culture. Christmas generates nearly half a trillion dollars of revenue. That may be good for retailers, but it’s not in the spirit of Christmas.
The commercialization of the holiday led a Catholic priest in Ireland this year to recommend abandoning the word “Christmas” altogether because, he said, it “no longer conveys the significance of the God who joined the human caravan and walked in our shoes. Christmas has a different connotation now.” He suggested the word be replaced with “nativity.”
I understand the priest’s frustration. According to Christian teaching, Christmas begins on Christmas Eve and ends 12 days later on January 6 (the Feast of the Epiphany). The Christmas Season ends even later, on the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, a week after the Epiphany. Meanwhile, the four-week period before Christmas is called Advent, a time of prayerful preparation and expectant waiting for the coming of Christ.
We live in an age in which some of the most profound and important experiences have been weakened in the name of inclusivity and political correctness. The problem is, by softening the core meaning of these experiences, we make them less authentic and ultimately less meaningful.
We know something is not quite right when the top five Christmas songs according to Spotify have nothing to do with Christ or the miracle of his birth. These songs’ themes aren’t offensive — they’re about love and snow, and sentimentality and nostalgia. But these things are ancillary to the real meaning of the holiday.
A similar weakening of meaning has occurred in other areas of life. When we give our children trophies and medals merely for participating in a sport, part of the significance of competing — winning and losing — is lost. When colleges label certain areas “safe spaces” from ideas that may frighten or offend students, they contradict the true purpose of education.
Often, this is done in the name of tolerance. But true tolerance is practiced when we engage with an idea or a practice that differs from our own. Done correctly, tolerance can help facilitate understanding and appreciation.
I have attended several Passover Seders, the Jewish ritual feast that marks the start of Passover. I am not Jewish, but I always enjoy participating in the dinner, and appreciate the meaning of the holiday, the commemoration of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt.
It’s a deeply moving ritual, one that’s full of religious and historical significance. It would never occur to me to ask those who organize the dinners to secularize the event in any way, or soften it for the sake of making it more accessible to non-Jews. I would not want them to. The value, at least to me, derives from witnessing and experiencing their faith and culture in full, not some softened version of it.
This is not to say that only those who believe in the core meaning of Christmas should take part. We should encourage everyone to participate. But by making Christmas about anything other than the birth of Christ, what exactly are we inviting them to celebrate?
Gary Bauer is president of American Values and chairman of Campaign for Working Families. He ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.
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