Is Christmas a secular or Christian holiday?
- Many of the Christmas song hits enjoyed today—such as “Rudolf, The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “White Christmas,” “Rockin Around the Christmas Tree,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” and more—were written by non-Christmas celebrating Jewish songwriters throughout the 20th century.
- The name Santa Claus evolved from Saint Nicholas’ Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas).
- The English word Christmas is related to Catholicism’s “mass on Christ’s day.”
- Christ is not Jesus’s last name. The word Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, which means “the one anointed with oil.”
- Between the 3rd and 4th century AD, the Roman historian Sextus Julius Africanus dated Christ’s conception to March 25, which resulted in his projected December 25th birth nine months later. Most historians today agree Jesus was most likely born in September between 6-4 BC.
Though it originated as a Christian festival, families of all ethnic and religious backgrounds celebrate it today. Over 2 billion people living in 160 countries consider it important. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that more than half (56%) of American respondents state that Christmas's religious aspects are emphasized less in American society today than they were earlier. Nearly one-third of the American population prefers celebrating Christmas as a cultural holiday without any religious ceremonies. This figure seems to be growing with increased international interaction and the influx of immigrants.
Families in America and abroad generally consider Christmas an occasion to get together and celebrate rather than worship. Less than a decade ago, 86% of Christmas celebrating adults focused their events on get-togethers and social interactions. In comparison, 59% mentioned attending religious service as an important element of their Christmas celebration. Four years later, this number dropped to 51%, indicating that fewer people celebrate Christmas through a traditional or religious lens.
Along with personal preferences, social and astrological events also alter how communities celebrate the Christmas-New Year holiday. Different geographical and religious communities have different ways of celebrating the winter solstice on December 21—most of which are not related to the Christian traditions. Even Christmas is called by different names in different parts of the world where there is little to no influence of the Christian culture. Various newspaper reports over the years have documented a wide variety of colorful celebrations around the world coming from non-Christian communities, showing just how secular the winter festival of giving has become.
No matter how or if people celebrate Christmas, the holiday is undeniably religious in origin and meaning. Whether acknowledged or not, the entire world has been shaped by the holiday’s focus after which it is named: Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the manger child of Bethlehem, the one claimed to take away the sins of the world, the promised Immanuel, 'God with us.”
But why do Christians celebrate this Jesus? How are they certain he was the promised Jewish Messiah, the Christ? The biblical scriptures are unlike any other historical document; they consist of a unified story spanning thousands of years, culminating in Jesus's coming in the gospels (the 'good news' announcing his life and mission of bringing God's Kingdom to earth).
Jesus matches the Messianic description as predicted by the Hebrew scriptures, including such facts as: he would be descended from the tribe of Judah, born in Bethlehem to a virgin before the destruction of Israel's second temple (destroyed in 70 AD), would be called a Nazarene, and would suffer and die for the sins of the world. Christmas rightfully celebrates such a person’s birth as detailed in the Christmas story.
But how does Santa Claus fit? Amazingly well, actually! Born in 270 AD, the real Saint Nicholas was a Christian who gave away his wealth to follow Christ's command to give to the poor. He was so zealous, he’s recorded in history as punching the heretic Arius for teaching Jesus was not God. Understanding his relation to Christmas should ground Christmas to its Christ-centric meaning even more.