Christmas is a holiday, but not a Holy Day, for an increasing number of Americans

Tri-City Herald file photo

Most Americans celebrate Christmas, but its importance to people as a religious event continues to wane, according to a new survey by Pew Research.

The poll found that while 90 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas, only 55 percent regard it as a religious holiday. Further, the survey found, a decreasing majority of Americans believe in the main elements of the Christmas story as told in the Bible: that Jesus was born of a virgin mother; that three magi came to visit, bearing gifts; that an angel announced the baby’s birth; and that the infant was cradled in a manger.

In fact, the survey found, just 57 percent of Americans believe all four elements of the Biblical account of the birth of Christ, down from 65 percent who responded to an identical poll in 2014.

Even among those who identify as Christians, just 76 percent believe all the elements of the story are true, down from 81 percent who said they did three years ago.

“Some of the ways Americans think about and commemorate Christmas appear to be moving in a more secular direction,” the research groups said in describing the findings on its website.

Anyone who has been into a mall or turned on a radio or television during December over the past decade might agree. But the poll also says most respondents are not bothered by this less-sacred reality, in which Christmas is more of a cultural holiday for some people than a religious one.

While the findings would seem to validate the concerns of some religious conservatives who perceive a “war on Christmas,” or an intentional effort to downplay the religious significance of the holiday, a professor at Campbell University in Buies Creek says the findings are in keeping with Americans’ move away from religion in general.

The poll also says most respondents are not bothered by this less-sacred reality, in which Christmas is more of a cultural holiday for some people than a religious one.

“It started with the televangelist scandals in the 1980s,” said Glenn Jonas, the Charles Howard Professor of Religion at Campbell. The spectacular fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, who went to prison in 1989 for defrauding their followers, and subsequent scandals cast a harsh light on evangelicals.

“The shimmer has sort of dimmed a bit off evangelicalism, and it has accelerated in the past year,” Jonas said. As the nation has divided on issues where faith and politics collide, some have moved further away from religion, he said.

“The Bible just isn’t as prevalent in the American dialogue as it used to be, except in a symbolic way,” he said.

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Americans still swear on the Bible before testifying in court, and elected officials lay their hand on the Bible when taking the oath of office.

“So the Bible has a symbolic place in American culture,” Jonas said. “But as American religion gets more and more secular, there is less of an incentive to study the Bible, much less believe what it teaches.”

Jonas said he sees three “tracks” Americans take when it comes to Christmas:

▪ Some eschew the commercial aspects of the holiday and the emphasis on shopping and parties, focusing instead, for example, on the four Sundays of Advent that lead up to Christmas and the commemoration of the arrival of the Christ child.

▪ Another section of the population has nothing to do with the religious celebration, but finds deep meaning in the ritual gathering of friends and family and in showing kindness to their fellow man.

▪ A third group does some of both.

Jonas said the Pew poll results could just be signaling a move away from the disproportionate importance placed on Christmas that started in the late 19th century. Until then, Christmas was not the biggest Christian holiday. That was Easter.

In the Bible, Jonas notes, the details of Christ’s birth are mentioned in only two of the Gospels. But his resurrection is written about in all four.

“For early Christians, it was the resurrection of Jesus that was the most important aspect of his life,” Jonas said. “Not his birth.”

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin