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Secular shifts makes Christmas a little something for everybody

Merry Christmas.

It’s that time of year – the big day is nearly upon us, in fact – and that’s still the preferred greeting even as the holiday becomes more secular.

A pre-pandemic poll by Abacus Data shows Canadians are more likely to use Merry Christmas to greet one another this holiday season, though the 62 per cent is down 10 points from the previous such survey in 2012.

In that same vein, an Angus Reid survey shows 82 per cent of Canadians say that they prefer to call this season “Christmas” while one-in-five (18 say) say they would rather it be referred to as the “holiday season.”

The use of “Christmas” is decidedly less religious, however.

For example, in 1988, 27 per cent of Canadians said this season was primarily a religious celebration. Today, just one-in-ten (10 per cent) say the same. And while more Canadians today say the season is centered around fun and festivities, rather than faith (53 per cent), the number who believe Christmas is equally about secular joy and religious observance has grown as well (34 per cent from 28), according to the same Angus Reid Institute survey.

Of those who report celebrating Christmas as a secular holiday, 61 per cent will most likely greet others with “Merry Christmas,” 30 per cent with “Happy Holidays.”

While most of us call it Christmas, the holiday season means different things to different people, Angus Reid finds. For some, it is mostly a religious and holy time. For others, it is a period of celebration and fun during the shortest, darkest days of the year. For half of Canadians (53 per cent) it is an interval of non-denominational festivities with friends and family. Fewer – just 10 per cent – say they consider this to be primarily a religious celebration, while one-in-three say that it is both, equally.

In that light, the taking-the-Christ-out-of-Christmas arguments are both stale and irrelevant. Yes, we’re suffering from way too much political correctness, but likewise it doesn’t really matter if there’s a Christ in Christmas.

It’s become a secular holiday, while remaining a holy day for others.

Let’s be clear: this is no mere greeting card holiday. Of all the holidays on the calendar, none compares to Christmas. It comes with its own magic. Rather than fretting about what it’s become – a subjective take, at best – maybe we should just enjoy the season, observing it as we see fit and holding on to our own traditions.

The very things that make Christmas special – goodwill, time spent with family and friends, the festive atmosphere – have nothing to do with religion. Sure, the impetus may have come from a Christian holy day, but many of those trappings were co-opted from earlier, pagan rituals.

Nothing we now associate with Christ-mass comes from the Bible, for instance. It wasn’t until the 4th century that Christians started emphasizing birth of Christ, rolling the narrative into longstanding solstice celebrations. Notably, imperial Rome marked Sol Invictus (invincible sun) with a feast on December 25, a celebration that included lighting candles, giving gifts and public festivals – all rolled into the Christ-centered narrative when Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity.

The myths and celebrations expanded from there to embrace more cultures as Christianity spread across Europe. It’s always evolved, just as it’s doing now, as witnessed by how the trappings of Christmas are embraced by non-Christians, established and newly arrived alike.

It is a common lament among certain elements – much more in the evangelical U.S., for instance – that Christmas has lost its real meaning. For some, this means a loss of focus on the birth of Jesus Christ, for others, it is the increased commercialization of the season rather than family and reflection. Among Canadians, the sense that Christmas has indeed lost some significance is pervasive, but it isn’t new. While seven-in-ten (69 per cent) say this now, nearly the same number (65 per cent) held that view in a 1953 Gallup poll.

Also not surprisingly, young people are less likely to get caught up in the debate, especially along religious or political lines, meaning the secular trend will continue.

That takes nothing away from the holiday. In fact, it may give a boost to all its best qualities by making it more inclusive.

Many of us hold Christmas in our hearts, if only because yuletide events are among our most cherished childhood memories, despite the impressions those old notions of Christmas have either come under attack or gone by the wayside.

For Christians, there is the significance of celebrating Christ’s birth – and all that it entails – in observing the holiday. But even among that group, Christmas has become a more secular event: the holiday we celebrate today, with its grab-bag of “traditions,” is the product of many inputs beyond the birth of a baby boy some 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem.

Today, we decry some of what Christmas has become. Of course, it’s highly commercialized – some of the symbols we use today were in fact created by marketers – almost to the point of overkill. But there has always been something – a feeling in the air perhaps – that made the season lift the spirits beyond anything the so-called greeting-card holidays could ever do for us. That feeling of warmth and goodwill, no matter your take on Christmas, is tangible; in some ways, it appears on the wane today as business, stress, and political correctness intrude on the holiday – much as they do on our lives as we progress from childhood into our adult lives.

That is undoubtedly a shame. Maintaining our childlike enthusiasm would make Christmas, and many other things, far more enjoyable.

The goal, then, is to recapture some of that zest, that anticipation and wonder that came with the Christmases of youth. At the same time, there is the need for an adult appreciation of what a timeout from the “real world” can mean for the soul.

That would make for a very Merry Christmas, indeed, no matter what our take on the holiday’s “real” meaning.

A little more local for your inbox.

Seven days. One newsletter. Local reporting about people and places you
won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

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