Christmas Changes for None(s)
Please note: I recognize there are several religious holidays celebrated at this time of year (and throughout the year), and I similarly recognize Religious Nones come from a variety of religious backgrounds. However, I have chosen to focus this post solely on the Christmas holiday and Nones with Christian backgrounds for the sake of brevity. As it is, this post turned out longer than a traditional rendition of the 12 Days of Christmas, so my hope is that you’ll agree it’s a good time of year to curl up with a hot cup of cocoa and a nice long…blog post 😉 If not, jump to the end to see the post summarized as a “spiritual recipe.” Cheers! Sarah
While celebrating the Christmas season this year—from picking out a tree to listening to Christmas music—I’ve realized more than ever that there are two Christmas holidays being celebrated simultaneously: one that’s devoutly Christian and one that’s more cultural and nature-focused. In response, I’ve started to wonder, which one am I celebrating? Which one do I want to celebrate? And how do other Religious Nones interact with the Christmas season?
My Christmas Journey
When I was young, there was a clear Christian influence in my family’s Christmas celebrations. Even after we stopped regularly attending our local Lutheran church, there was no doubt we would still attend on Christmas Eve. When we decorated for the holiday, the star topping our tree was seen as the Star of Bethlehem, many ornaments depicted angels and nativity scenes, and we displayed two nativity sets each year—one porcelain scene for decoration plus a smaller wooden scene for my brother and me to play with. Of course, my parents also included cultural Christmas aspects, from a partridge-in-the-pear-tree pillow to personalized stockings to books about Santa and his elves. Yet, they also made a point to teach my brother and me about “the true meaning of Christmas”—the birth of Jesus.
However, times change, beliefs shift, and children grow up. In my mid-twenties, I went to Harvard Divinity School wondering if I might lean into my Christian roots and start frequenting church beyond my family’s yearly Christmas Eve excursion. Instead, I found myself identifying with the unaffiliated students who called themselves Religious Nones and, following graduation, creating a business to provide spiritual care services for this population.
Further solidifying this identity shift, in the middle of my Master of Divinity, my family and I had the unfortunate experience of attending a Christmas Eve service where the pastor preached about poop. Yep, poop. That really happened. To be fair, the sermon actually focused on shepherds, but the p-word was mentioned enough throughout that I lost my appetite for Christmas fudge and future Christmas Eve church services.
As a result, there is little about my Christmases nowadays that is particularly Christian. I no longer attend Christmas Eve church services, and the decorations I put up with my husband are more culturally-focused like our wooden Santa Claus garland, or nature-inspired like our tree skirt decorated with felted pinecones. In addition, I recently made a playlist of my favorite Christmas music and discovered after listening that I had not included a single song that mentioned Jesus’s birth. Oops?
Religious Nones and Christmas
In contemplating my changing Christmas traditions, I started to wonder about other Religious Nones. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the number of Nones has been increasing in recent decades, especially in the last five years. Given that the majority have Christian backgrounds, I find it interesting to consider how this group interacts with the Christmas season.
I began with some light research into Christmas traditions. It turns out, Santa Claus actually does have Christian roots, as he is based on the fourth-century Christian bishop, Saint Nicholas. However, in more recent decades (possibly recent centuries), Santa Claus has become something more cultural than religious. Consequently, Santa is often welcomed at malls and businesses, schools and street corners with little thought about the separation of church and state. In comparison, a growing number of people in the US think it is inappropriate for government buildings to display nativity scenes. In other words, Santa = cultural; Jesus = religious. As for the nature-inspired holiday decorations, it turns out Christmas trees were adopted from pagan traditions around the winter solstice, mistletoe was a Druid tradition, and snowflakes seem to be purely cultural.
Next, I turned to my Instagram followers, and they graciously responded with a variety of beliefs and traditions. It turns out not even the atheists who follow me boycott the Christmas season (at least none who messaged me). Rather, like many Nones, they have cultural ways of celebrating this time of year. Here’s a few takeaways from what my Instagram Nones (atheist and otherwise) shared:
- Most of my Instagram Nones started by mentioning the importance of family at Christmastime. I wasn’t surprised by this answer because, in my research, I’ve found that “family” is often the first idea Religious Nones share when asked what brings meaning to their lives.
- In addition, many Nones shared about seasonal, nature-inspired experiences like twinkly lights and warm drinks to make this cold, dark season more cheerful and cozy.
- They also shared my preference for seasonally-focused Christmas music like “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” rather than Jesus-focused like “Away in a Manger.” Yet, from what I gathered they probably wouldn’t change the station if “Away in a Manger” played in a radio mix, which is also similar to me.
Finally, I gathered some statistics about Christmas beliefs. From what I’ve read, the Christmas experiences of my Instagram Nones are actually part of a larger societal trend. In 2017, Pew reported that “religious aspects of Christmas are declining in public life,” and even private celebrations seem to be following suit. Thirty-three percent of Americans—and 43% of Millennial Americans—now view Christmas as “more of a cultural holiday,” and only half plan to attend church on Christmas Eve. In addition, fewer Americans believe the exact depiction of Jesus’s birth from the Bible, with a large decline in the number who think Jesus was born to a virgin.
I recognize these statistics may be difficult news for some Christians, and I offer my sincere apology if you found them troubling. I personally find the statistics exciting because they’re a reminder that we’re experiencing a period of change and innovation around spiritual practices, not to mention an increasing acceptance of diversity. In addition, I loved finding out that my changing Christmas traditions are part of a bigger movement–it sparked a sense of Community Connectedness!
Nonetheless, despite finding the change exciting, I still found part of me wondering: “Is this how I want to celebrate Christmas?” and “Do I really want to let go of the Christian focus?” Having reflected on this further, here’s what I’ve come to realize:
I think holidays are important. Holidays, whether religious or otherwise, offer unique opportunities for cultivating Connectedness and thus strengthening our spiritual health.
I think when you’re Christian, there’s a clear path for a spiritually meaningful Christmas because the religious beliefs and practices are assured, whereas the cultural aspects are optional.
In contrast, for Religious Nones, everything is optional. The religious practices are optional. The cultural practices are optional. Celebrating Christmas is optional. Therefore, if we’re not careful, the beliefs and practices we choose to emphasize may not contribute to our spiritual health. In fact, they may do the opposite.
For instance, when we let go of the religious focus, it’s easier to be swept away by the materialism of Christmas. Giving gifts can feel like a chore when we focus on the busy malls, holiday traffic, hours of online browsing, and extra strain on the bank account. The added pressure these days from social media to make our Christmas décor Instagram- or Pinterest-worthy can also be a holiday turn-off. The problem is, focusing on material holiday challenges, comparing ourselves with others, and feeling like we aren’t enough / aren’t doing enough / don’t have enough promotes disconnection rather than spiritual health.
In some ways, letting go of materialism is an age-old Christmas trope—think about how many Christmas stories end with realizing presents and other material things aren’t the true meaning of Christmas. Yet, this idea is relevant more than ever with the rise of Religious Nones because we don’t have any obvious religious beliefs to tether us. It’s easy nowadays to find ourselves feeling disconnected in December only to realize it’s because our Christmas season hasn’t emphasized anything that promotes spiritual health and Connectedness.
Ideas for Connectedness at Christmas
So, if you find yourself asking, “How do we change this?” here’s a few ideas for a more intentional and spiritually-connected Christmas:
One option is to re-embrace some religious aspects of the holiday. The way I see it (although some pastors may disagree), you don’t have to believe in the virgin birth to appreciate Jesus’s teachings of peace, love, and forgiveness, and thus want to celebrate his birthday! Thinking about it this way has inspired me to re-introduce into my Christmas celebrations some songs, décor, and experiences that focus on Jesus’s birth.
For instance, I’m now planning to ask my parents for the children’s nativity scene so I can share it with my children one day. In addition, Levi and I went to a performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Washington National Cathedral a few weeks ago. This English oratorio from the 18th century–most famous for its repeating Hallelujah chorus–is distinctly Christian as it shares the story of Jesus’s birth, crucifixion, and resurrection. It was incredibly moving and helped include a more Christian-focused experience in our Christmas season.
That said, I don’t think embracing Christian aspects of Christmas is the only way to have a meaningful holiday. Rather, we simply need to cultivate awareness around our actions and make our holiday choices with intentionality. That way, we can choose activities and mindsets that promote Connectedness (a feeling of connection with something greater) instead of disconnection, thus making for a meaningful, cultural Christmas season.
For example, we are encouraged to give during the Christmas season, not just gifts to friends and family but also to charities, homeless shelters, food banks, etc. When we view these acts as opportunities to connect with others and remember we are part of something bigger (families, communities, the entire human population), we are cultivating Connectedness and spirituality.
Holidays are also a great opportunity to practice gratitude and reconnect on a deeper level with friends and family. They are also a time to reconnect with our local communities by participating in seasonal events like tree-lighting ceremonies.
In addition, nature-inspired traditions cultivate Connectedness with our environment, while focusing on love can cultivate Connectedness with our orientation to the transcendent (aka God, a Universal Energy, etc.).
Upholding or starting family traditions can also be a spiritually-fulfilling experience. For example, while I was growing up, every Christmas my parents, brother, and I each picked out a new tree ornament. It’s a practice I enjoyed so much that I’ve continued it with my husband and we plan to continue it with our future children. Sure, an ornament is a material thing, but the family history and expectation of carrying on the tradition creates a beautiful cross-generational sense of Connectedness.
That said, I want to acknowledge that holidays can also be a challenging time for some people: the loss of a loved one is often felt more acutely at this time of year; gift-giving can create financial burden; returning home is not always an option; and for those who do see family, differing values and beliefs can sometimes lead to tense exchanges. If we continue to cultivate awareness when challenges arrive, we can view these as opportunities to focus on Connectedness and use our spiritual recipes (I’ve previously called these “spiritual tools”). In other words, even the challenges can provide opportunities for strengthening our spiritual health.
Whatever your situation, I hope that your December is filled with more joy than sorrow, more peace than tumult, and ultimately, more Connectedness than disconnection. And, if you celebrate the religious Christmas, the cultural Christmas, or a combination of the two, I wish you and your family peace and blessings this holiday season.
P.S. This is one of my favorite spiritually-fulfilling but non-religious Christmas songs:
Christmas for Religious Nones: Creating a Holiday Full of Connectedness
Option 1: Re-embrace some religious aspects of the holiday
- The way I see it (although some pastors may disagree), you don’t have to believe in the virgin birth or even believe Jesus was born in December to appreciate his teachings of peace, love, and forgiveness, and thus want to celebrate his birthday! So if this feels right to you, try intentionally including in your Christmas celebrations some songs, décor, and experiences that focus on Jesus’s birth. That said, if this doesn't mesh with your values, don't force it!
Option 2: Cultivate awareness around your actions and make your holiday choices with intentionality
- Choose activities and mindsets throughout the Christmas season that promote Connectedness (a feeling of connection with something greater) instead of disconnection.
- Give gifts to family and friends as well as charities, homeless shelters, food banks, etc. When we view these acts as opportunities to connect with others and remember we are part of something bigger (families, communities, the entire human population), we are cultivating Connectedness and spirituality.
- Practice gratitude and reconnect on a deeper level with friends and family.
- Connect with your local communities by participating in seasonal events like tree-lighting ceremonies.
- Allow nature-inspired traditions and decor to cultivate Connectedness with your environment.
- Focus on love as a theme to cultivate Connectedness with the transcendent (aka God, a Universal Energy, etc.). Personally, I like Sara Bareilles's song, "Love is Christmas" (embedded above).
- Continue or start family traditions to create a spiritually-fulfilling experience. For example, while I was growing up, every Christmas my parents, brother, and I each picked out a tree ornament. It's a practice I enjoyed so much that I've continued it with my husband and we plan to continue it with our future children. Sure, an ornament is a material thing, but the family history and anticipation of carrying on the tradition creates a beautiful cross-generational sense of Connectedness.
- Recognize holidays can be a challenging time for some people. Try to offer understanding and forgiveness to those who are suffering. If you're the one struggling, try to view the challenges as opportunities to focus on Connectedness and use your spiritual recipes. Even challenges can provide opportunities for strengthening our spiritual health.