Christmas religiosity wanes, study says

Jennifer Lee Preyss By Jennifer Lee Preyss

Dec. 22, 2017 at 4:42 p.m.
Updated Dec. 23, 2017 at 6 a.m.

First United Methodist Church of Cuero members participate in a live Nativity scene at Christmas at the Park.

First United Methodist Church of Cuero members participate in a live Nativity scene at Christmas at the Park.   Angela Piazza for The Victoria Advocate

Each year the Christmas season arrives with a glittery, gift-giving bang.

Homes, buildings and shopping malls illuminate with Nativity scenes and colors of red, green, white and blue. Passersby begin uttering nostalgic greetings: "Merry Christmas," "Happy Holidays" and "Pass me the eggnog."

Churches everywhere host dramatic retellings of the divine Christ's birth. Churches also prepare for an upswing of attendance that only occurs one other time of year - during Easter.

But as Christmas trees go on sale earlier every year and the Santa and reindeer blow-up lawn decorations grow taller and more digitized each season, is the religiosity of the holiday waning?

According to a recent Pew Study on Christmas in America, for the 9 out of 10 Americans and 95 percent of Christians who observe the holiday annually, only 46 percent are celebrating for a religious purpose. That number fell from 51 percent a year earlier.

"I think from the outside perspective, from a bird's-eye view, that may look true. From where I sit, however, you see people coming to church more than ever," said the Rev. Bobby Rivera, of Covenant Life Center in Victoria, mentioning people may have varying opinions about religion at different times throughout the year. "It's not a percentage that stays consistent. Whether they stray from their core beliefs during the year, I think most will come back to it at some point during Christmas."

Rivera would know about people coming to church. He's grown his church from a small handful gathering in a living room to more than 400 people in less than 10 years.

He agrees studies like the one released by Pew are important to keep a pulse on the religious culture in America, but he doesn't get a sense that Christianity is waning overall.

The study also examines whether the use of "Merry Christmas" vs. "Happy Holidays" is preferable, noting 52 percent say it doesn't matter which one is used. Those who prefer "Merry Christmas" are currently at 32 percent, which fell 10 percentage points from last year's 42 percent. Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to use "Merry Christmas," according to the study.

There was also an increase in those who disagree with displaying Nativity scenes and other holiday showpieces on government property. Roughly 26 percent say they should not be allowed, and 3 out of 10 say they should only be displayed if they are accompanied by other religious displays, such as Hanukkah candles, according to the study.

John Schlembach, whose mother was Jewish and father was Catholic, said he grew up celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas, though Christmas was always more secular in his home.

Now a practicing Buddhist, Schlembach said he isn't bothered by overtly Christian themes during Christmastime, or Nativity displays on government properties.

"Believe it or not, it doesn't offend me. And if someone says 'Merry Christmas' to me, I'll usually say it back," the Victoria resident said. "I have no great problem with these displays on public land. I wouldn't personally put one up, but if I see a Nativity, I'm not going to go to city hall and complain."

Schlembach noted the rise of Christmas commercialism and capitalism as one of the reasons the Pew study may display a growing secular view of the holiday.

"Christmas is less about religion these days and more about giving gifts, going into debt to buy things you don't need," he said, agreeing with the results of the study. "But I think we're a long way from the religious meaning of Christmas going away entirely."

Schlembach, an armchair historian, noted very few religions have expired in history and believes the Christian bent on Christmas will likely remain intact in America.

"It's a fairly momentous thing. You don't see the end of very large religions very often," he said, noting America's pervasive and enduring Christian roots.

Mary Ann Brandl Wenske, a practicing Catholic and Moulton resident, said while she observes the rise in secularism during Christmas, she notes even non-Christians giving and serving during the holiday is a sign of Christ remaining evident in Christmas.

"So, yes, I see secularism at work, but I also see the grace of Christ at work, that spark of loving our neighbors that only the Christ child can ignite," she said. "There is certainly much work to be done in evangelizing, but we know that in the end, Christ wins, so I will look for the positive."


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