Christmas by the Numbers


In my last post I explored the confusions we have about Christmas, Santa Claus, and Jesus, suggesting that we’re really dealing with issues of civil religion rather than deeply held rational argument. It’s why an isolated teacher at some school or a municipality’s decision about the public square generates intense feelings of persecution and an idea that the whole thing is slipping away.

Last night we watched Miracle on 34th Street with one of my graduates and her husband. Miracle is in second place of my favorite Christmas movies, behind It’s A Wonderful Life and in front of A Christmas Story. I really like the movie a lot. It’s engaging, with stories of victimization and power, and John Payne (Kris Kringle) and Natalie Wood (Suzie) are delightful to watch.

But watching the movie after thinking about the celebrations of civil religion made me see it differently. (If somehow you’ve not see it, there are spoilers in this paragraph!) I was aware of the times that Kris is told that “we believe in what you stand for, kindness, joy, etc.” It was striking how much capitalism plays center stage, with stores embracing customer service because it could bring more profit. (Helper Alfred says, “of all the isms in the world, one of the worst is commercialism.”) It was great to see the Republican district attorney stipulate his admiration for government agencies (they had to ruin the remake because the post office was no longer part of the government). I also noticed that whenever Santa told a child that he would get his request, he told the parent where to buy it. No elves making toys — just parents running out after work to purchase the desired item. Even at the closing scene, where Suzy finds her house, Fred and Doris discuss the need to buy the house that Santa “provided”.

I’m sure I could deconstruct all of our favorite Christmas movies and make myself less popular that the judge at Kris Kringle’s sanity hearing (I already played around with A Charlie Brown Christmas.) Alan Noble of Christ and Pop Culture wrote this interesting piece on Wonderful Life. I’ll probably get around to A Christmas Story before next week and find other hidden meaning (besides the centrality of a particular gun to the plot).

I’m still trying to make sense of what people are really celebrating when they watch these movies. Yes, there are Christmas Carols played (in 34th Street, Good King Wenceslas is playing at the old folks home Christmas party and Hark the Herald Angels closes both Wonderful Life and Charlie Brown). But the content (except for the Linus speech) doesn’t quite line up.

In the midst of my pondering today,  two  reports of Christmas surveys came across my twitter feed. Pew’s Religion and Public Life Project did a poll on how people celebrate Christmas, how they think of the holiday, and a bunch of other stuff. Then the Public Religion Research Institute released their data on similar questions.

christmas2013-5The Pew Survey asked respondents if Christmas was Religious or Cultural. As the table shows, slightly over half see it in religious terms with about a third seeing it as a cultural celebration. Notice that the under 30 crowd reflects the same general trends away from religion I’ve explored numerous times before. But it’s fair to summarize the data as saying that a plurality see Christmas as religious with a sizable minority seeing it as only cultural.

Maybe this diversity is why the PRRI folks found that nearly half of their respondents favored having shopkeepers saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. It’s just not worth upsetting the non-religious folks. (Evangelicals differed greatly from the general pattern with 80% favoring “Merry Christmas”.)

The Pew survey also found out that just over half of their respondents said they would attend church services. Curiously, this is true regardless of their beliefs about the nature of the holiday. Sure, nearly 3/4 of those who see Christmas as religious plan to attend this year, but so do 30% of the cultural Christmas group and a quarter of those who say they don’t celebrate Christmas! Now, as a good sociologist who teaches research methods I need to point out the possibility of social desirability — answering questions as you think you’re supposed to answer. Call me scrooge, but I don’t think one out of every two adults will be in church services next week (even if you count children’s pageants).

Here’s another interesting tidbit that shows up in both surveys: People like Linus’s explanation of “what Christmas is all about”. The Pew survey asked if people believed in the virgin birth and found just under 3/4 agreeing, including over half of those who think Christmas is just a cultural tradition!

Similarly, the PRRI survey asked if people believed the “historical story” of the birth of Jesus (virgin birth, angels, shepherds, wise men). Nearly half of Americans report that they believe the story while 40% say it’s only a theological story. The PRRI reports a pretty significant shift away from the historical account over the last decade (down 18% since 2004).

All this data brings me back to issues of holidays of civil religion. I think it’s likely that the traditional Christmas story has become one of the strands of the civil celebration of Christmas. We dress up and go to the Christmas Eve service. We recite the story (or listen to Linus do it). But it all gets mashed up with Santa and presents and candy and trees. It becomes part of the general celebration.

But as I wrote last time, it may lack depth. This is why other surveys by these groups show a surprising lack on knowledge about the scriptures, theology, and the Good News. If we were really celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday, maybe it would be more of a season of reflection. Maybe we’d say less about greetings people use and say more about the mystery of Incarnation.

In fact, if Jesus can give up Divine Majesty to become a human baby (Phil 2), maybe I can give up being offended if people say Happy Holidays. Paradoxically, it I modeled the emptying (known as Kenosis) that is the heart of the Christmas Story, maybe I’d be a better Witness to the Gospel.

3 thoughts on “Christmas by the Numbers

  1. As always, I appreciate and learn from your observations, John. I not only agree with you about the civil religion of Christmas, but I think we see American civil religion trumping Christianity at every turn all year long. The religion of America is American exceptionalism, the inalienable right to be armed (and finding your security in those arms), the right to extravagant wealth (if you “earned” it), and the godliness of military might (considering every member of the military to be a “hero”). Our civil religion teaches that we should never suffer for our faith because we are called to make our faith the dominant power of the culture by any means possible. Of course none of those are New Testament values, but that escapes our notice because we’ve convinced ourselves that our civil religion is the faith of Jesus Christ.

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