Fading Faith

Students share their holiday traditions and reflect on how their modern celebrations of Christmas have strayed from its religious origins.

Illustration+by+Sydney+Fener

Illustration by Sydney Fener

Emmy Zhang

On Christmas Eve, Goldie Grube ’23 said she casts aside her usual attire of sweatpants and graphic t-shirts in favor of a formal black dress for Christmas mass. Every year, she and her family attend St. James Catholic Church, where congregants sing Christmas carols and listen to sermons to commemorate the religious aspects of the holiday. When she returns home, Grube said her sense of holiday spirit shifts: She puts on reindeer pajamas and waits in excitement for morning to come, and she says the religious meaning of Christmas drifts from focus. Grube and her four brothers wake up on Christmas Day to the smell of their mother’s homemade eggnog. She said they eagerly jump out of their bedrooms, flying down the stairs to surround their Christmas tree.

Grube said she recognizes that Christmas has both a religious and cultural nature because she is exposed to different forms of holiday celebrations.

“Besides going to mass, my family has developed traditions that have nothing to do with religion,” Grube said. “I think for many people the appeal of Christmas has expanded from being a religious [observance] at church to a fun time where families enjoy and create their own unique celebrations, that are both religious and non-religious.”

Avery Kim ’23 said her family’s Christmas celebration is rooted in religion. She said they attend Christmas services, where the entire congregation gathers to share a meal to celebrate the Christmas spirit of love and community after the mass.

“On Christmas Day, we go to church, where we watch a religious skit about Adam and Eve called ‘The Fall,’” Kim said. “We call this ‘The Gospel Message,’ which talks about the fall of humankind and the rise of Jesus Christ. Then, we all enjoy a potluck where people bring dishes from home. For me, being together with all of our friends symbolizes the warmth of Christmas.”

Although Kim said she attends church with her family every Christmas and knows the biblical story of Jesus’s birth, she said Christmas celebrations, including her own, often celebrate characters such as Santa Claus culturally rather than religiously.

“When my siblings and I were young, we would bake cookies for Santa and stay up on Christmas Eve to wait for him to come and eat them,” Kim said. “One year, my uncle even dressed up as Santa to surprise us. Even though Santa Claus is clearly not part of the biblical story, he is still an important symbol of Christmas for me and for many other kids around the world.”

The secularization of Christmas began in 1870, when former President Grant made it an official federal holiday in an effort to unite the northern and southern regions of the United States during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, according to Time Magazine. The religious emphasis on Christmas has dwindled among younger generations, according to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center, with 32% of millennials viewing Christmas as a religious holiday while 44% of them view it as a cultural celebration.

Grube said emphasis on the religious aspect of Christmas continues to decline for younger people in society today.

“I think there’s a general move away from religion within our generation, and subsequently, there’s been a move away from celebrating Christmas only in a religious way,” Grube said. “I don’t think it takes away from the spiritual and religious meaning of the holiday. In fact, my family and I go to church on Christmas Eve, but it’s a joyful time for people of all religious and cultural backgrounds. [Christmas is] a day about giving and spending time with family.”

Samuel Hines ’24 said the entertainment industry heavily contributes to the secularization of Christmas among youth, as he said modern films and songs omit the religious aspects of the holiday and usually only depict secular symbols and themes.

“Popular holiday songs like ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ [by Mariah Carey] and movies like ‘Home Alone’ are played everywhere during the Christmas season,” Hines said. “TV shows almost always show people opening and exchanging presents, decorating the tree and putting up lights, but they don’t usually contain any religious references, which might explain why fewer and fewer young people link Christmas to its religious meaning and story.”

Marissa Lee ’22 said she does not perceive the commercialization or the secularization of Christmas a damaging force but rather as factors that enhance the holiday spirit.

“Buying Christmas decorations and presents is a fun part of the celebration, and characters like the Grinch and Frosty the Snowman help create the festive spirit of Christmas that everyone loves,” Lee said. “I don’t think they have a negative influence or take away from the religious aspect of Christmas. They add to the holiday season and provide Christmas stories and warm feelings that everyone can embrace.”

Christmas has gained widespread acceptance among people of all religions, with 81% of non-Christians in the United States celebrating the holiday, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, For instance, Raisa Effress ’23, who said she is Jewish, said she and her family have embraced Christmas traditions such as hanging stockings and baking Christmas cookies. Effress said since Hanukkah often falls close to Christmas, she and her family can enjoy aspects of both holidays.

“Last year, I made a Christmas tree that included Hanukkah and Christmas symbols,” Effress said. “We hung dreidels, candy canes and angels. We also had a Secret Santa where we each secretly bought gifts for friends and family. I love the uplifting and happy spirit of both of the holidays.”

Unlike Effress, Shoshie Bernstein ’22, who is also Jewish, said she does not celebrate even the cultural aspects of Christmas. Bernstein said she and her family always celebrates Hannukah during the holiday season.

“I’m Jewish, and my mom is a rabbi, so I’ve never really felt a connection to Christmas, but I do connect to Hannukah,” Bernstein said. “I’ve never felt excluded in any way when I see Christmas decorations. It is just not part of my religious background.”

Kim said notices that Americans observe Christmas in different ways but acknowledges the holiday’s universal significance as an expression of love.

“The non-religious aspect of Christmas shouldn’t be seen as hurting the religious meaning of Christmas,” Kim said. “People can make their own Christmas stories.