The Mishmash That Is Christmas

This is the first of three posts about Christmas, and I’m going to tackle religion head-on! It’s hard to deny that Christmas is a Christian holiday, and it’s hard to deny that Christmas celebrations have pagan roots. So who is “entitled” to celebrate, and how?

First of all, if devout Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and so on celebrate Christmas, it is often to join with their Christian or secular friends to show good will. Likewise, Bah’ais and Unitarians also tend to celebrate Christmas (if at all) as a way of showing respect for others’ beliefs.

There are 3 other ways to celebrate Christmas (besides not at all):

  • As a religious holiday, with religious obligations
  • As a secular holiday, with religious options
  • As a secular holiday

Most people I know fall into the second category. They identify as Christians, if only for the census, but they’re non-practicing. As such, they have no actual religious obligations for Christmas, but they choose to attend a church service on Christmas Eve either out of tradition, or to please someone else.

The latest stats I could find say that 21% of Canadians attend church weekly, but 33% never do. That means 46% attend church occasionally, although for most of those, it’s just once a year. As you might guess, the most frequented church days are Christmas Eve, Easter and Mother’s Day. It appears those are the days that family members feel most obligated to attend church, or willingly please their mothers.

I will note here that twice as many Americans attend church regularly as we Canadians or Brits!

I read that most church-going Christian families attend church on Christmas Eve, but reserve Christmas day for gift opening and dinner with family – a lot of American Protestant churches don’t even have services on Christmas day.

There are lots of Christian holiday traditions that non-practicing folks might take part in:

  • Displaying a Nativity scene
  • Attending a Nativity play
  • Reading the story of the birth of Jesus (especially to children)
  • Watching movie versions of the story of Jesus
  • Decorating with figures of angels
  • Topping a Christmas tree with an angel or a star
  • Singing religious carols
  • Going to see or participate in Handel’s Messiah
  • Giving or using an Advent calendar
  • Giving money to Christian charities
  • Giving money to a church
  • Saying grace at Christmas dinner

There are only a few Christmas traditions that are done almost exclusively by practicing Christians:

  • Attending church both on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, especially if they fall mid-week
  • Having a birthday party for Jesus
  • Lighting Advent wreath candles
  • Decorating a Jesse tree

Both religious and non-religious folks enjoy traditions with pagan roots:

  • Merry making (parties)
  • Feasting (Christmas dinner)
  • Carolling and processions
  • Christmas trees
  • Wreaths
  • Holly
  • Mistletoe
  • Yule logs
  • And by extension, lavish decorating

And finally, both religious and non-religious people may follow the secular traditions of:

  • Gift-giving (I assert that although the wise men brought gifts to a king, gift-giving is not a specifically Christian practice, and is certainly not limited to Christmas)
  • Santa Claus (I assert that the link between the behaviour of Santa Claus and St. Nicholas is so weak that Santa is not a Christian tradition)
  • Giving money to general charities before year-end

Are there any secular Christmas traditions that practicing religious people don’t do? I can’t think of any…maybe watching Bad Santa with your family?

So, to sum it up, the average person who is a non-practicing Christian takes part in up to 12 Christian-based activities over the Christmas season, while religious Christians take part in up to 12 pagan and secular traditions. That’s not even counting generic winter activities like ice skating and drinking hot chocolate!

If a person celebrates Christmas in their own home, it is rare to find one who deliberately chooses not to participate in any Christmas tradition with religious overtones. Even atheists tend to be flexible at Christmas. It is equally rare to find Christians who refuse to participate in any secular or pagan Christmas traditions, although Jehovah’s Witnesses are noted exceptions, not celebrating Christmas at all.

What does all this mean?

  • If you are Christian, you have more to celebrate.
  • If you are pagan, you get to party more.
  • If you are non-religious, you get to pick and choose what you like.
  • Christmas brings people together?

I can certainly understand people of any persuasion who simply shake their heads at the whole season, with its religious arguments and its consumer excess.

Next time I’ll write about what I do for Christmas – because yes, I do something!

8 comments

  1. Mel

    Very informative! Looking forward to the next instalment!

  2. I found this fascinating in the questions it made me want to ask: So, non-Christians participate in a dozen putatively Christian activities yearly in, let’s say, North America. Do Christians participate in a dozen putatively religious but non-Christian activities annually? In both Canada and the US, Christmas Day is a legal holiday. To my mind, this is a clear indication that we continue to live and accept a putatively secular view that is in fact tied to Christianity as an unstated “of course.” And I am not going to even start harping on how Americans have highjacked the minor Jewish holiday of Chanukah to puff it up as a “Christmas Parallel”–which it ain’t.
    Stepping Off Soapbox

    • I lived in the US for a few years in an area where the Jewish (by religion) population was about 17%. The schools would do one Chanukah song as part of their Christmas concert every year, and call it a holiday concert. They wouldn’t include any religious content, but they blithely assumed that every kid was visited by Santa! The example that bothered me most was that parents at my child’s daycare really wanted a Nativity scene or play there, despite it being a non-religious daycare. However, the same families refused to allow dreidel games or any Jewish symbols because they wouldn’t allow their children to “practice” a different religion.

  3. SarahN

    Ah, thanks for asking! (and I learnt about Jesse trees, first time I’d heard of them/that concept. I’m religious (attend weekly, on a number of rosters etc), but countless people close to me don’t this ie I’m not evangelical at all (by that I mean I’m not a convert and conquer sort). That being said, when my parents invited me to join them on a Easter holiday out of town I declined as I’d prefer to be at ‘home’ for the religious elements of Easter. Sometimes my work calls for me to work a Sunday, I’ve been known to dash between a work site, church and back to work site (the priest was amused at my work boots!), and now if I miss a service they assume work or an international holiday!

    I’ve never considered the events you deem pagan as such! Then again, I’m not ‘strict’ at all in my religion, so that’d figure that it doesn’t concern me. Currently I’m in France, one of three legally secure states. Interestingly, all calendars mark Christian holidays, including things like all saints, Pentecost and assumption. Seems amazing to me!

    Outsightings- interestingly, when I’m in other countries (or with a foreign cab drivers, as is common) I am mindful of alternate religious events – Diwali, rosh Hannah, Chinese new year, ramadan, eid (now i know theres two per year!) etc etc. admittedly, being Aussie, we’re a country with a bit of everything culturally, though we have Christian sanctioned holidays

    • Yep, I agree with both of you. Despite being in countries that supposedly separate church and state, Christian holidays are always the default, and if you are not religious, you are essentially told you should observe the Christian holidays in a non-religious way! I would say that it makes life easier if you are religious and you observe the dominant cultural holidays, but I can see that it requires extra effort on your part! Stay tuned for Part 2!

    • Thanks for the link. I like your take on syncretism – which I first learned about when I tried to understand the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses. We have different points of view about the bible and paganism, but I’m always happy to challenge my beliefs and get a glimpse into other points of view.

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