Cherished Traditions and the Secularization of Christmas

I attended Catholic School for a good portion of my life and effectively obsessed over my religion. When the holiday season rolled around, I used to lament the secularization of the event. Fast forward to present day, and we find I am not nearly as religious as I once was. I may even qualify as nonreligious. That comes with a reduced enthusiasm for the Christmas season, and yet the secularization of the December holiday continues to astound me. Looking around, it seems the least religious among the people I know are the most excited for all the traditions of the holiday season.

The Secularization of Christmas

The origins of Christmas do not lay in Christianity. The summary of how the holiday came to be as it is today has to do with people trying to convert pagans to Christianity. The date was already being used to celebrate Saturnalia, the Roman god of agriculture. By placing a Christian holiday on the same date, it was thought pagans would find it easier to convert. I have a friend, who is a bit too religious for her own good, who refuses to celebrate Christmas, Easter, and Saint’s day and any secular holiday (like New Years) because of their pagan origins.

Maybe that’s crazy, or maybe that makes more sense than anything else that happens over the holidays.

We have this fairy tale about Santa Claus and all these ridiculous decorations we step out in the freezing cold, on tall ladders no less, to put up all over our homes. Whether you get a fake tree or a real tree, the evergreen that bring holiday ambiance into homes is bound to make a mess. When it comes to shopping, people stand in huge lines, sometimes stumbling over each other, just to get the next big deal. The whole thing seems a bit nuts to me.

From what I’ve experienced, it seems a bit nuts to most people like me, people who used to be religious. Then there is my Jewish friend in college. She loved Christmas, had a tree up next to her menorah and happily engaged in the exchange of gifts. People in my life who have little care for anything religious seem to be the most enthusiastic about this holiday season. It catches me off guard every holiday season, even though I knew this was the case. Didn’t I lament the secularization of the holidays as a religious person? Certainly that is why so many nonreligious people have this enthusiasm.

I don’t think I am a Scrooge, though. There are things that are important to me this time of year, like family. On Thanksgiving, I spent  hours in my car just to see family members whom I haven’t seen in months. The same thing will happen over Christmas. I will buy the most important people in my life presents because this is the time of year to celebrate those individuals. That’s what I cherish during the holidays.

There is, of course, nothing really wrong with holiday decorations and music. People are free to celebrate in any way they wish. I think the reason all that seems unappealing to me is that I used to relate it to religion. Without that purpose, the busy work of decorating seems unnecessary. In addition, with all the running around I do this time of year, buying presents, visiting family and attending Christmas parties, I don’t feel like spending the time on even more holiday activities. I mean, I could put up a Christmas tree or I could blog. Which would you prefer?

 Honestly, that’s a lie. My boyfriend’s mom heard about my lack of Christmas decorations last year and bought me a little blue tree (Midnight Blue being my favorite color). She’s already asked me at least once if I have put it up. I will have to do so. Even if I had the ability to lie (I don’t), she’d demand a picture and I’d be caught. And who am I kidding? A gift given to me by family is my soft spot this season, and I’m bound to put the tree up before Christmas.

That little blue tree bares a message of the future. If ever I have a family of my own, especially in a space big enough to store decorations for the other 11 months in the year, I’ll be at least a little more excited. I’m thinking about it already. Alone, in my tiny apartment, decorating a Christmas tree seems a bit lonely. Next year, when I’m living with my boyfriend in a larger place, I wouldn’t be surprised if I wanted a tree to decorate together while we sip Bailey’s hot chocolate.

How enthusiastic are you about the holidays? Does the secularization of Christmas trouble you? What is the most important aspect of the holiday season? Have you already started to decorate for the holidays?

Photo Copyright: acik / 123RF Stock Photo


36 thoughts on “Cherished Traditions and the Secularization of Christmas”

  1. Christmas preparations are woefully behind this year. I usually make a Christmas cake and we have a real tree. Go to Church where the kids dress up. Right now, it’s all feeling like too much hard work. Shame on me!

    1. That sounds nice. I haven’t done anything like that but remember dressing up as a kid for church. Before I became less religious, the whole thing was becoming more laid back. I rarely see people in the faith I grew up in dress up that much anymore. It has good and bad sides. Personally, I think if it makes people care more about community and less about looking the part, it’s all good.

  2. Actually it’s different from year to year. This year I might be a bit more excited than usually for I moved out for an intership in September. So Christmas will mean meeting family and friends that I haven’t seen for a while.
    I have a Jewish friend as well and she loves gingerbread (I even baked it with her in spring when she wasn’t in Germany in winter) and old movies typically for Christamans, but she also showed me that Christmas and Eastern are really at the same time as some of her holidays (they were related anyhow). So I can’t understand your other friend – though I tried – because without honoring Eastern and celebrating it there is no point in considering oneself as Christian (totally subjective opinion).
    Oh, and I like the “snowing” effect.

    1. I know. But she sees those holidays as pagan because of their page roots. Though Christian, and believing in Jesus as her savior, she wants to be Jesus – who celebrated Jewish holidays. So she celebrates what he did.

      That’s her logic anyway. Makes little sense to me too.

  3. I love Christmas and the coming together of family. The decorations are beautiful as well as the tree. However, the rudeness of the people as the rush to buy gifts, and the competitiveness between family and friends is bothersome. Christmas itself is a beautiful time, as long as the focus is not lost on petty things.

    1. I agree, and it does seem to be leaning more towards those petty things these days. Getting the perfect gift shouldn’t matter as much as being together.

  4. I have always been very into Christmas. As a child of course, there was both the excitement of Santa and the joy of celebrating Christ’s birth (I was also very religious as a child, but not so much anymore.) When I had a place of my own and kids, it became about cramming every tradition into their “perfect” childhood. Eventually, the fervor calmed to an acceptance that I can’t do everything, but we still do a lot. I experience joy in my holiday decorations and those of others. I do a lot of online shopping to avoid the crazy, but I am still searching for the perfect gift to show that someone how much I love them. Christmas is not in the gifts and the baubles and the trimmings, but in the thought behind them. The gift of happiness to others, whether through bright decorations, a thoughtful gift, or a simple Merry Christmas to a stranger is what really counts. These are things you can do whether you lean to the secular or religious. It is a time when we should all be grateful, giving, kind, and thoughtful and try to carry that inner peace with us through out the year. I guess Christmas is what you make of it and finding meaning for yourself is far more important than buying into what it means for other people.

    1. I like the idea of putting up decorations and going through the typical traditions as gift of happiness to others. I never thought of the decorating aspect that way. I guess I’ve gotten used to going through the motions.

  5. Just this morning I put up the handful of Christmas decoration we own (okay, more like three handfuls’ worth of mosty baubles, candy canes, and tiny straw stars). I don’t bother with buying a tree for just the two of us – last year we had a jar of fir sprigs, this year I fell back on my own little tradition (from single days) of hanging the ornaments from potted plants I have around all year (since recently with fairy lights in them). We won’t be home at Christmas, so why go overboard with decorating? But I have to admit I enjoy the tiny bit of extra flair and the fuzzy feelings they bring!
    I hate the hassle of people seemingly shopping non-stop, though. The mall will be open for two hours longer the next few weekends. Shouldn’t the people working there get a chance to spend some time with their families as well in the days of advent?
    As a believer (though not overly ‘religious’ in the sense of flaunting it in every possible way and living by a million rules) I’m sad that Chrismas like about everything else has become secularised and commercialised. To me it often looks like people try to buy happiness to replace a lost sense of purpose/meaning … which is very depressing, because this artificial, superficial cheerfulness doesn’t feel or look very joyful most of the time 😦

    1. I often wonder why more people don’t think of the extra work and hours people put in so they can shop longer. It happens all year round, but seems to get worse during the holidays. Take truckers for example. We’d have nothing without them moving down the road, delivering items to all the stores we shop at. Does anyone stop to wonder if they will be home for Christmas? What about the clerk behind the counter at the gas station, working so you have gas to drive to your parent’s house (or wherever your going for Christmas)? So many people have jobs that can’t stop for the holidays, the last thing we should be doing is forcing them to spend even more time away from their families because we can’t shop during normal business hours.

  6. I’m pretty excited about the holidays. J, B and I bought ourselves a Wii U! It’s the greatest gift we ever gave ourselves. Hours and hours of awesomeness. I don’t know if you play Super Smash Brothers, but the Wii U version lets you do 8 player matches on 1 screen.

    Christmas has always been secularized for me. I was Southern Baptist for about 8 years of my life and although they told me about how Christmas was a Christian holiday, outside of church no one I knew ever mentioned the connection. I hung out with way more ethnic groups back then and I remember asking my Vietnamese friend’s mom, “why do you have a Christmas tree if you don’t practice religion?” Her answer was so perfect I never asked anyone that question ever again. She said, “Because it’s an American holiday that people in America celebrate.”

    The most important aspects of this holiday season for me are food and getting off work. I like J’s family, it’s just with this whole Ferguson thing going on they’re being extremely racist and close minded and I find the conversation off-putting on so many levels.

    Last year I bought a wreath from the dollar store and $5 worth of decorations for that. That’s the extent of my decorating and that thing has been sitting by my front door since last Christmas lol

    Happy Holidays TK!

    1. I have a friend who has the Wii U. I admit, the thing is awesome. I think we’ll leave it at his house, though. Between my boyfriend and myself, we have a PlayStation and an Xbox.

      I think that’s what Christmas has turned into, although I don’t know that it’s purely an American holiday. Japan, as I understand, celebrates Christmas, too, in the sense you should be with family and buy a gift for the people you care about. As religious people have become less strict or simply less religious, I think this holiday has stuck because it provides something to the human spirit.

  7. Unless I end up with a partner who adores Christmas decorations, I do not plan on decorating my home for the occasion. I’m not Scrooge either…I am just not that passionate about decorating! That might change though.

    I am with you on the holidays being about togetherness. The holidays always feel like a special time to celebrate each other. Also, there seems to be something special in the air during this time. 🙂

    1. I’m just way too busy on an average day to worry about decorating, and this time of year I am twice as busy. In that sense, I can see decorating as a way to slow down the holiday season…. but I’m so bad at putting this away….. ^_^

  8. I’m an atheist who celebrates Christmas. I do so because I like the passing on of traditions from my own childhood which had been passed on through the generations before me. I also like the spirit of Christmas, the togetherness, the celebration of family and connectedness, the ritual of giving and receiving. Christmas having been secularised, therefore, makes it easier for me as someone with no faith to opt in because I need not feel excluded.

    I find the run up to the festive season exhausting though because with four kids in school there is always something going on and we have commitments every weekend day for a month. Then there’s the tree to put up, the advent calendar box to fill, presents to buy and wrap (aside from tree lights, that’s my worst festive chore) so I find myself being very bah humbug in the run up to Christmas. Then I see the magic twinkle my efforts have created for everyone and it’s all worthwhile so I stay on the hamster wheel of festive stress.

    And that seems to be part of the Christmas tradition too.

    1. December always seems to go by in a flash with all that is going on. There are aspects I like about Christmas, like seeing family I haven’t seen a in a long while. When family is 5+ hours away, it can be hard to get out there. I think major holidays like Christmas give us an excuse. Why is it worth spending the money? Because everyone who can should be with family on Christmas.

      At this moment, I have about half the weekends of December full, but I am making a point not to plan anything personal on those weekends because something is bound to come up. And if it dosen’t, the rest will be much appreciated.

  9. My enthusiasm stems from my spiritual engagement. My Advent group is studying a seasonal book of daily readings by St. Therese of Liseaux, The Little Flower. We met last Sunday at my home (which I spent the greater part of the day decorating). I love the decorating because I am so very sentimental. My boys love to trim the tree and this year I thought about how much this process has changed since they were young. Tears always fill my eyes when I find ornaments left to me when my mom passed away or the quilt ornament given to us the year our dear friends lost twin boys. I ignore the secularization of Christmas. I focus on what is meaningful. Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. I am thankful for your thought-provoking posts. You make my world a bigger place. Best, Catie

    1. I think that’s a great way to be. In a way, I suppose I too ignore the secularization of Christmas. I’m not an unbeliever even if I don’t have a church I regularly attend. This holiday has spiritual meaning to me and it’s connect to all family and friends. It’s a very human holiday, celebrating the best of us – ideally. We don’t have to celebrate the bad aspects of humanity (such as greed) if we don’t want to.

  10. As a pretty nonreligious person myself, I’ve been grappling with this situation on my own. I love Christmas, yet I’ve found myself wondering if I have a right to if I don’t celebrate it for its religious purposes.

    I am coming to the conclusion (I’m still very much in the process of thinking this through and becoming okay with this) that I have every right to love Christmas as a nonreligious person because, for me, it is a time to spend with family and appreciate all the beauty and good in the world. It is a time for positivity and thankfulness. Christmas is tradition and comfort, and I think in a constantly changing world, that’s so important.

    As I grow older, the commercialization of Christmas continues to bother me more and more. I hate that Christmastime has become an excuse to get stuff. There is a very clear difference to me between commercialization and secularization. Christmas is a time to celebrate family and friends and the beauty of this life. It will always be an important holiday to me in that sense.

    1. I completely agree. You’re answer is probably the closest to mine as I have seen so far. You are right, the commercialization is more concerning than anything else. Outside of that, I like that the holiday is becoming a time for all people, of every creed, to get together and celebrate the blessings of life.

  11. I love your falling snow!! 🙂 And I love the holiday season! It’s the one time a year I can spoil my friends and family and really now that I’ve moved away from home, its the one time of the year I get to really spend with my family! 🙂 You should definitely put the tree up sooner than later! 😉 get more time out of it!

  12. I am not a christian, I live in India where christians are a minority, yet I like to celebrate, or rather acknowledge christmas, by at least eating a bit of cake on that day. In India, we have too many festivals and holidays to celebrate, and although I am not ritualistic personally, having grown up in a conservative family, I do celebrate most festivals. But the ones I enjoy the most are the ones which either never had a religious meaning in the first place, or have now far transcended their religious origins to take on a more universal appeal.

    But I found your post interesting because when I was staying in a hostel and we used to celebrate christmas with parties etc, my christian friends objected strongly because they felt this was against the spirit of christmas and it should be about prayer and building a relationship with god and not an attempt to party or be promiscuous (they never said this aloud, but hinted it clearly enough). It never made sense to me, till I read this thing about how it is the non religious people who seem to enjoy this holiday much more than the religious ones.

    1. Even when I was more into religion, Christmas always had a focus on people and family. Maybe it hasn’t done it completely yet, but I think Christmas is a tradition that will full transcend its religious origins. We have days – like birthdays, father’s day and mother’s day, to celebrate one or two important people in our lives. This is the holiday where we come together to celebrate all we have.

  13. In some ways, my trajectory is the opposite of yours, TK. I was raised in an exclusively secular Christmas tradition and was an atheist until my mid-20’s. Now, as a Jesus-follower, I embrace the richer cultural traditions as well as the deeper meaning of “Christ-mas” (“Christ’s mission”). I don’t worry about the origins of popular Christmas symbols any more than I worry about the fact that the days of the week are named after pagan gods. What things ARE matters more than where they came from. (I Corinthians 8:4-6)

    1. As you shouldn’t. I’m pretty sure if my friend thought she could get by, she’d make up a calendar with different names for the days, because she is that serious.

      I think there are positive aspects to both religious and secular traditions of the holiday. That’s what makes it great, in a way. It’s one of the few holiday that almost anyone can celebrate.

  14. TK, you are not alone in how you feel about Christmas, which I refer to as the shopping season. Retailers have seemingly claimed what used to be a family holiday. And, they are interfering with Thanksgiving, which is my favorite holiday, with the earlier start to shopping season.

    As an Old Fart, I can tell you Santa Claus has long since replaced Jesus as the star of Christmas, which is unfortunate. Yet, I do believe, we can still find that true Christmas spirit. My best friend is Catholic, so going to midnight mass is a special memory, along with the caroling we would do afterwards.

    I guess if I had to choose my own way of remembering why we have Christmas, it would be the saying “peace be with you.” So, that is my greeting to you. Best wishes, BTG

    1. I love that way of looking at the Christmas season. That is the one thing I wish we could keep all year round from the Christmas season, this idea of peace… not that we seem to be getting much of that this year.

  15. Honestly, I could care less about the holidays. The commercialization and secularization has completely ruined this time of year for me. Even more so because I have worked retail during this time of the year.

    1. Ew. I would not want to work retail this time of year (I did once, but it wasn’t in a major store). You have my respect. I think I would go insane real fast in retail during the holiday season.

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