According to Christian theology, the Christmas holiday commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whose teachings form the basis of the Christian faith. Christians didn’t begin celebrating Christ’s birth until the third century A.D., when Roman church officials settled on December 25 (the Bible doesn’t mention the exact date), probably to coincide with already existing pagan winter festivals. Today, Christmas is not the most important Christian holiday—in fact, it ranks fourth after Easter, Pentecost and Epiphany. Yet since the 19th century, when Americans began to celebrate Christmas in the way we think of today—including traditions such as decorating trees, sending holiday cards and giving gifts—it has grown into the biggest commercial holiday of the year and is now celebrated by the vast majority of Americans, Christian or not.
According to the Pew Research Center Survey, which polled 2,001 American adults earlier this month, fully eight out of every 10 non-Christians celebrate Christmas, with most viewing it as a cultural holiday rather than a religious occasion. And while 96 percent of Christians celebrate Christmas, only two-thirds of them view it as a religious holiday. In total, 51 percent of Americans who celebrate Christmas see the holiday as religious, while one-third view it as more of a cultural holiday.
Younger adults were much less likely than older adults to view Christmas as a religious occasion, and to incorporate religious elements into their celebration of the holiday. Only 39 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed said they considered Christmas a religious occasion, compared with 66 percent of those 65 and older. Younger adults were also less likely to attend religious services and to believe in the story of the virgin birth. This data is consistent with other recent research showing that young people are helping to drive the rise of the religiously unaffiliated population of the United States, calculated at one-fifth in 2012 (the highest ever in Pew Research polling). At that time, fully one-third of those polled under the age of 30 said they were unaffiliated with any religion.
In an attempt to explore the changing nature of Christmas traditions, the Pew survey also asked its adult participants how they remember celebrating the holiday as children, compared to the way they celebrate it now. A whopping 86 percent said they plan to celebrate Christmas with family and friends, and the same percentage say they plan to give gifts to friends and family. Around nine in 10 adults (91 percent) said these activities were part of their holiday traditions when they were children. According to the survey, eight out of every 10 Americans (79 percent) plan to put up a Christmas tree this year, compared with 92 percent who said they typically put up a Christmas tree when they were children.
Other holiday traditions remembered from childhood didn’t fare as well, however. While 81 percent of those surveyed said their families typically sent holiday cards during their childhoods, only 65 percent said they planned to do so this year. Only 16 percent said they would go caroling (compared with 36 percent who said they caroled during their childhood).
The Pew survey found that religious and non-religious Americans are relatively similar in their celebrations of the Christmas holiday, and that both cultural and religious observers were just as likely to gather with family, exchange gifts and take part in another popular Christmas tradition—Santa Claus. Among those adults surveyed who have a child who believes in Santa Claus, 69 percent said they plan to pretend that Santa visits their house on Christmas Eve this year. Perhaps more surprisingly, 18 percent of parents whose children do not believe in Santa will still pretend to get a visit from the jolly bearded fellow this Christmas, and so will 22 percent of adults who are not parents or guardians of any children.