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Christmas: Christian vs Cultural

A Pew Research Survey conducted in 2017 found that the religious aspects of Christmas are emphasised less now than previously. This comes as no surprise since religious affiliation has been rapidly declining in the West. Those who identified as Christian hovered around 90% in the 1970s to 1980s, dropping to 80% in the 1990s. So far, in the 2020s, the number is just above 60%.

Still, 90% of Americans continue to celebrate Christmas because the holiday remains one of the most significant in the calendar. This means that Christmas is typically celebrated in two senses: There is a Christian Christmas vs a Cultural Christmas.

The Pew Research notes:

“Those who celebrate Christmas as more of a religious event are much more apt than those who view it as a cultural occasion to say they will attend religious services this Christmas (73% vs. 30%) and to believe in the virgin birth (91% vs. 50%)”

This means that there are two major differences between a Christian Christmas and a Cultural Christmas: (1) Christmas Service attendance and (2) Belief in the virgin birth.

These are to be expected, but here is where it gets surprising:

“But on other measures, the differences in the ways the two groups will mark the holidays are much smaller. Roughly nine-in-ten in both groups will gather with family and friends and buy gifts this Christmas, and identical shares of each group will pretend to get a visit from Santa Claus on Christmas Eve (33% each).

Apart from Sunday Service attendance, and holding on to certain orthodox teachings, the way a Christian celebrates Christmas is virtually indistinguishable from a non-religious Cultural Christmas. In other words, culture has so seeped into the Christmas tradition that even Christians celebrate it in much the same way as the world does. If the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ is as world-changing and life-transforming as Athananius claims (see last week’s editorial), then surely there ought to be a significant difference in the way we commemorate the Incarnation event as well. Otherwise, our Christian belief in the Incarnation, to use a holiday themed idiom, would be all icing and no cake.

Let’s examine then, your Christmas tradition. What are the indispensable elements of your Christmas celebration? The following list would be commonplace:

  • Putting up a Christmas Tree

  • Hanging stockings on the wall

  • Presents and gift-exchanges

  • Log cake and Christmas pudding

  • Watching a Christmas classic on TV

  • A meal gathering with family and friends

  • Pretend Santa has visited (for families with young children)

  • Playing Christmas carols

  • Sending Christmas cards to loved ones

All the activities above are by no means wrong, they are good things which spread joy and cheer. And they no doubt hold plenty of meaning for many Christians.

The thing is, if we opened our bibles and sought to create a Christmas tradition purely based on the biblical teaching on the Incarnation, I’m not confident that the even the ubiquitous Christmas tree would find a place on the list, much less cake and Santa Claus.

But what, other than the bible, ought to shape the Christian’s Christmas? This is not so much a call to renounce all cultural elements of our modern Christmas celebration, but to retain the heart of the Christmas story, which has much less to do with a family gathering than an ingathering of those who are not-yet-family.

Christmas is the day where the God the Father sent his Son Jesus Christ into the world so that sinners can become the children of God. It is wholly evangelistic, and decidedly outward looking. It is an event marked by sacrifice and love for the world.

So let’s retain the biblical emphasis of Christmas: invite an outsider to the Christmas meal, share the good news of Jesus’ birth with a non-believer, sacrificially love the needy and lowly, or in your own unique, God-given way, make your Christmas a truly Christian celebration.


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