And so this is Christmas: Perceiving the sacred and secular

A new survey shows that a majority of American adults, 56 percent, feel like the religious parts of Christmas are being emphasized less now than in the past. At the same time, 9 in 10 Americans celebrate the holiday — about the same share who did so four years ago when Pew researchers asked Americans these questions. Among all adults, half plan on attending religious services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day this year, also relatively unchanged from just a few years ago. The Pew study appears to show a shift in the perception of Christmas becoming more secular than sacred.

Overall, 95 percent of adults who self-identify their faith as Catholic say they celebrate Christmas, and nearly 7 in 10 say they do so religiously rather than “culturally.” By comparison, 86 percent of those without a religious affiliation celebrate Christmas, yet only 16 percent do so as a religious holiday. Americans without a religious affiliation are the fastest growing religious group and represent about 1 in 5 adults in the country.

Fewer Catholics, 68 percent, say they plan on attending Mass at Christmas this year than did in 2013, when 76 percent said they were going to go to church services. Research from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) shows that more Catholics attend Mass at Christmas than on any other day of the year — followed by Easter and Ash Wednesday.

There also appears to be a slight erosion of belief about some aspects of the Christmas story. Accounting for margin of error for the surveys, Catholics are less likely now than in 2014 to believe that an angel announced the birth to shepherds (90 percent compared to 82 percent) and that Jesus was laid in a manger (92 percent compared to 87 percent). There has been no significant change in Catholics’ beliefs about Jesus being born to a virgin (83 percent) and that wise men guided by a star brought Jesus gifts (80 percent).

Half of Catholics, 49 percent, say they feel that religious aspects of Christmas are emphasized less now than in the past. Six in 10 of these Catholics say this bothers them “some” or “a lot.” One in 10 Catholics, 11 percent, say they believe religious aspects are emphasized more now than in the past, and 39 percent say they haven’t seen much change.

A declining share of Catholics say they prefer stores and businesses to greet customers by saying “merry Christmas.” In 2005, 41 percent preferred this; today 36 percent wish this phrase was used. Most Catholics say it doesn’t matter to them what is said (44 percent), and about 1 in 5 prefers a more secular greeting like “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings” (19 percent).

The Pew study is one of many recent surveys that show Americans perceive a decline in the significance of religion in American culture. For example, in Gallup surveys of 2016, 75 percent of Americans said they believe religion is losing its influence on American life. By comparison, only 39 percent responded as such as recently as 2001.

There is perception, and then there is reality. There certainly are more stable trends in religious practice and belief among Americans. In 1944, Gallup found that 96 percent of U.S. adults believed in God. In 2016, they found that 89 percent do so. Seven percentage points is far from a major culture shift. In 1952, a Religion and the American People Survey found that 72 percent of adults in the United States believed in heaven. Earlier this year, a national survey conducted by the Pew researchers found that 74 percent do so today. In 1939, 37 percent of American adults said they went to religious services in the week before they were surveyed. Today, about 36 percent do, according to Gallup.

The idea that Christmas is changing also is a relatively constant concern. Many American Christmas traditions were knitted together from immigrant customs and glued by the emerging consumer culture of the 19th century. Some historians argue Christmas always has been a blend of the religious and commercial in the United States. Even the American notion of Santa Claus is a long journey from the Dutch Sinterklass and even further from St. Nicholas. Even the more secular notion of saying “happy holidays,” really simply, is wishing someone else to have happy holy days. Secular notions of Christmas are never far removed from the sacred.

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Last month an Irish Catholic priest, Father Desmond O’Donnell, suggested Catholics let go of what secular Christmas has become. Embracing the religious traditions of the Advent season anew might reinvigorate the meaning of the holiday for Catholics. Perhaps this would mean fewer reindeer stories, iced cookies and electric lights on houses and more Advent wreaths, Nativity sets and coins in children’s shoes on Dec. 6. At the same time, there are few other things that so many Americans do together for such an extended amount of time than celebrating Christmas. There seems to be room enough at the inn for people of many faiths. That shouldn’t make it any less religiously significant for Catholics.

Mark M. Gray, Ph.D., is a senior research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.