Holiday or Holy?

We need to be clear about why and how we celebrate Christmas

My husband recently had a surprising conversation with a colleague. She told him she’s a Christian because she celebrates Christmas.  

“But do you believe that Jesus is the son of God and that he died for your sins?” my husband asked. 


“No, that’s just a myth,” she replied. 

“So you don’t believe in Christ, but you think you’re a Christian because you like Christmas?” he followed up.

“Yes,” she said, adding that she identified with Christian culture. 

As my husband was telling me this story, it occurred to me that the way North Americans celebrate Christmas has become so big, so pervasive and so perverted from the original story that it has become a religion all its own. 

Even my Muslim friends put up a Christmas tree and exchange presents because they don’t want their kids to be left out of this popular cultural phenomenon. They treat Christmas like Canada Day – a fun thing to do, where anyone can participate in the parades, flag-waving and barbecues with no religious significance and Jesus is not a necessary component. 

There’s evidence to support that Canadians are happy to have the fun of Christmas without the faith. A 2014 Angus Reid poll found that 80 percent of respondents preferred to call this time of year “Christmas” rather than the “Holiday Season,” although only 37 percent said they would be attending a Christmas service. Somewhat fittingly, only 29 percent said it was “very special” to “celebrate the birth of Christ with loved ones.” 

Culture vs Christ 
Confusion arises because we have two identically-named events. There’s the “Christmas” that is defined as a two-month-long season of shopping, belief in Santa Claus, decorated evergreen trees, ugly wool sweaters and overindulgence in sweets; the other, also called Christmas, is the joyful celebration of the birth of Jesus. 

I know from experience that my kids find homonyms confusing, so using the same word to describe both of these concurrent events makes it hard to know why we are doing something. I’ve been trying to distinguish it for my kids by calling the Santa-focused event “Cultural Christmas” or embracing the generic word “holiday” to mean winter celebrations that do not include Jesus. 

So if we are listening to a radio station playing an endless loop of pop singers belting out Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and Jingle Bells, I tell my kids they’re hearing “holiday music.” A children’s party at the local community centre, where the name of Jesus will never be spoken, but Santa will make an appearance and hand out candy canes, isn’t a Christmas party, it’s a holiday party. 

Parents no longer have a lot of control as to whether their kids are exposed to the Santa-worship of Cultural Christmas. Canadians spent $417 million on toys and games in December 2016, according to a survey of large retailers, produced by Statistics Canada, and a CIBC-commissioned survey reported Canadians had an average gift-giving budget of $643 in 2017. With big money on the line, Cultural Christmas marketing is impossible to avoid unless we’re prepared to retreat to an off-the-grid cabin in the woods. One friend made a valiant effort not to talk about Santa to her kids, until her eldest child started school and was in tears on Christmas morning, wondering if he had been bad because he hadn’t received gifts from Santa. 

A Happy Medium 
My compromise is not to fight the fun of Cultural Christmas, but to be deliberate in making distinctions between holiday traditions and Christmas traditions. I think fighting to have the term “Christmas” on traditions that are not faith-based is actually diluting the message of this special event. I’m happy to surrender the marketing and madness to “holiday sales,” instead of insisting we connect discounts with the divine. 

Every family finds their own way to navigate this issue including setting up nativity scenes, attending a live re-enactment of the nativity, reading Bible stories, attending Christmas church services, lighting Advent candles, following an Advent calendar or devotional, and talking about the real St. Nicholas. One idea I love is to move the timing of these celebrations further apart. Instead of trying to celebrate both Christmases on Dec. 25, move gift giving to another day such as the Feast of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6. Making traditions of donating to charity or volunteering can also help switch the focus between events.  

For our family, it will likely mean lots of little conversations on an ongoing basis and always asking the question, “Why are we doing this?” before we make it a family Christmas tradition. 

  • Margaret is a writer, community organizer and active volunteer. She and her husband are raising three young children in Ottawa, Ont.

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