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In defense of secular Christmas


There are two Christmases in America.

There’s the Christmas of an ethereal nativity scene featuring a sweet baby Jesus nestled in his manger, the north star shining bright over him, Mary, Joseph, the three wise men, angels, a shepherd, and animals in awe of the miracle of life.

There’s also the Christmas of Secret Santa, mistletoe, egg nog, ugly sweaters, the Great Holiday Baking Show, and the exchange of expensive Lego sets to your dearest loved ones.

In America, both Christmases are completely OK. They coexist, often within the same household. In fact, 91 percent of all people in the United States celebrate Christmas, including 81 percent of non-Christians in the U.S. who hang the stockings and trim the tree. Even higher is the proportion of non-theists who don all the gay apparel at 87 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

"The idea that Christmas can be celebrated secularly today is obvious in many ways," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. "For example lots of songs — 'The Night Before Christmas,' 'Jingle Bells' — a lot of them don’t mention anything religious."

Maybe this is because celebrating around this time of year is part of the human condition. The ancient Romans marked the end of autumn with parties and gifts during Saturnalia. Centuries later came Yule, a pagan ritual celebrating the beginning of winter and rebirth of the sun in the northern hemisphere (modern Wiccans and Druids are still getting their Yule on in 2015). And let's not forget some of our most beloved songs of the season were written by brilliant Jews.

"There are those who are more evangelical in their beliefs, or staunchly religious, who say, ‘Why are you bothering? This is the holiday for Jesus Christ,’" Speckhardt said. "But those who have a good knowledge of history know that it’s the Christians who stole Christmas from the pagans, and it’s a celebration that people have had around the winter solstice, really. Christians adopted it to make Christianity more palatable to early believers."

In the US, however, is a growing contingent of those who don’t believe anything, known as the "nones."

Chart shows the percentage of Christians is on the decline as the percent of the non-affiliated rises
The percentage of Christians is on the decline as the percent of "nones" rises

According to a Gallup poll released Christmas Eve, the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian has gone down 5 percentage points since 2008 (down to 75.2 percent this year), while the percentage of nones have gone up 5 percentage points (now at 19.6 percent). Religious non-Christians have remained around 5 percent. Meanwhile, a third of those 18-29 have no religious affiliation, as well as 26 percent of those 30-34.

Religious affiliation by age Gallup

Yet Christmas doesn’t feel any less jolly than it did seven years ago.

Remember the Red Cup Debacle of 2015? It feels so long ago, but it’s only been two months since Starbucks’s holiday cup was deemed blasphemous. Where’s the holly leaves? The Star of Bethlehem guiding the Magi to baby Jesus in his manger? Many lament there is a war on Christmas: people wishing others "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas;" nativities removed from government buildings; billboards hyping up the non-existence of god. While there may be some validity to this worry, the tradition of Christmas, will endure — and co-exist with the many forms it takes, whether it’s the tone of "Ave Maria" or "All I Want for Christmas Is You." It's a federal holiday during an an annual milestone of peak capitalism, for goodness sakes; Christmas isn't going anywhere.

Besides, no one is denying the religious nature of Christmas. "Most non-theist would not care either, if [Christmas activities and songs] were a little religious in nature," Speckhardt said. "'Silent Night' is quite a pretty song, and I think people can appreciate it just for what it is: it’s good art. The main thing about the season is that it really brings people together. It’s about friendship, and family, and gift giving, as opposed to worrying about receiving." And who doesn't like that?

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