According to the Pew Research Center, 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas. This well-known holiday derives its name from “Christ’s mass” and is a celebration of Jesus Christ’s, the Savior and Redeemer according to Christianity, birth. The holiday wasn’t celebrated by early Christians, but over the years it’s grown into one of the biggest holidays celebrated in the US.
Jesus likely wasn’t actually born on December 25th, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, and while no one knows for sure how the date was chosen, there are a few possibilities, from an ancient theologian calculating it based on when he thought Jesus’s conception was – March 25th – to a Christian political move to weaken the significance of pagan holidays that occurred in the same season. Regardless, the date of Christmas, at least for Western Christianity, was cemented and has been December 25th ever since the 4th century.
Over the years, additions were added to the celebration of Jesus’s birth, like the Christmas tree. Fir trees have shown up as religious or semi-religious symbolism in many religions and practices over the years. The Christmas tree, in particular, originated from Western Germany, where “paradise trees” were set up during winter to signify the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge, from which Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and were cast out of the Garden. Due to the similar timing of this tradition and Christmas, the practice soon became associated with the holiday.
Santa Claus as the figure that brings toys to children on Christmas Eve has also been influenced over the years through different incarnations. Santa Claus originates from the Christian saint Saint Nicholas, who lived in the 4th century. In the US in the 1860s, cartoonist Thomas Nast and later in the 1930s, the Coca-Cola company and its advertising campaign, helped to shape Santa Claus into the classic figure he is today.
Today, Christmas celebrations include trees, gifts, seeing family, the set-up of a nativity scene – nativity referencing Jesus Christ’s birth – and sometimes a service at church. Roman Catholics in particular have an approximately two-hour long service called midnight mass that begins at the midnight between Christmas Eve and Christmas. Many Protestants conduct a Christmas Eve evening service. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2017, 46% of Americans celebrated Christmas as a primarily religious holiday.
However, Christmas is becoming more secular by the year, and now many of its celebrants aren’t Christians. Non-Christians who celebrate Christmas often drop the religious elements and keep the secularized elements like the Christmas tree and the gift-giving. They celebrate for a variety of reasons. Some non-Christians celebrate because they grew up Christian or because the majority of their family is Christian, so Christmas is a big tradition in their family. Others choose to celebrate Christmas because of how culturally prominent it is. Some non-Christian immigrant families begin to celebrate Christmas when they move to the US as a way to partake in American culture. Whatever their reason, those who participate in a secular Christmas are becoming more and more common with the de-popularization of religion in the US in general. Despite this, Christmas is a long way from becoming a secular holiday. While much of its emphasis in media and pop culture is secularly focused, for many families, the religious elements of Christmas still are and will always be the most important part.
Regardless of how Christmas is celebrated, it is an important part of many Americans’ years and will likely be so for many years to come. So to everybody celebrating Christmas this year: Merry Christmas! And to everybody who’s not: have a great holiday season!