Saturday, December 16, 2006

Christmas As A Secular Holiday

This thought was triggered in part by the USA today report that the Christmas trees have been restored at Sea-Tac, though I've been mulling this particular idea over for a couple of years now. Are Christmas trees religious symbols or are they secular symbols with a religious origin? This is just one facet of a larger question, which is whether Christmas is a religious or a secular holiday. I'm of the opinion that the US actually celebrates two holidays, both called "Christmas", one of which is secular and one of which is religious.

This may seem far-fetched at first, but consider the following:
Similar items are commonly displayed at "Christmas time" in the US. One is a nativity scene; its clearly religious, depicting a scene from the Christian story of The Nativity. But what about the other one, the inflatable snow globe? Its not a religious symbol in the sense that its mandated (or even sanctioned) by any religious authority or text. Rather its just the latest salvo in the ever-escalating Christmas decoration wars, most recently lampooned in Deck the Halls. So I think its safe to assert, in the least, that there are two categories of symbols commonly associated with Christmas celebrations in the US, one of which is religious and one of which is secular.

It would be enough, at this point, to construct an argument placing Christmas trees in the latter category. But I want to be more comprehensive; can an argument be made that there is a comprehensive Christmas practice in the US that is purely secular in nature?

How is Christmas popularly celebrated? The Wikipedia article on the subject seems fairly comprehensive, though I'd add practices such as decorating the tree and baking cookies as well. Note that of all of these items only two have Christian roots (nativity scenes and Santa Claus) and only one (nativity scenes) retains overtly religious symbolism today.

Such observations aren't conclusive though; we must also ask how people interpret these symbols. When people put up a Christmas tree or exchange gifts are they doing so in recognition of some Christian tradition, or are they participating in a secular, family holiday along the lines of Thanksgiving? Well, per the 2000 Census, ~77% of the US population self-describes as Christian, or roughly 3 in 4. Do more, or less, than ¾ of the population celebrate Christmas? The answer is surprisingly hard to pin down; I've found estimates as high as 95%, but those estimates are put fourth by people who potentially have something to gain by inflating the number. Even if you allow for a "Fox discount" the actual percentage is likely higher than 77%. The spread1 between these two numbers represents people who aren't Christian but who celebrate Christmas.

What does it mean that there are people who aren't Christian but who celebrate Christmas? Some probably observe the holiday under duress because they want to get along with their families and the rest of society. But some undoubtedly are actually celebrating Christmas of their own free will just because they like getting the family together and giving presents. This secular version of Christmas is almost indistinguishable from its religious counterpart; close scrutiny will reveal a lack of church-going and overt religious symbolism, but that's about all.

Which brings us back to Sea-Tac... what version of Christmas was being celebrated there, religious or secular? Given the absence of any religious symbolism (overt or otherwise) I'd argue that the people who put up the Christmas trees were celebrating the secular version. The only argument to the contrary, as far as I can see, is "Christmas is a Christian holiday". But, given the discussion above, I don't believe that assertion holds anymore.
1 I'd actually argue that, for the purposes of this calculation, the 77% needs to be adjusted downwards, relying as it does on the assumptions that all Christians celebrate Christmas and all Christians celebrate the religious version of the holiday. Not all Christians celebrate Christmas (for example Jehovah's Witnesses), so the category "Christians who celebrate Christmas" is a proper subset of "Christians". Additionally, I suspect that many self-identified Christians are actually celebrating the secular version of the holiday; when they put a star on top of the Christmas tree do they do so because it reminds them of the Star of Bethlehem or just because it looks nice?

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