Anna is a pastor, writer, and theologian who obtained her BA in religion in '06, Diploma of Ministry in '16, and Diploma of Divinity in '17.
The Decline of Religion in Christmas
In all the hustle and bustle and excitement of Christmas each year, Advent often gets overlooked. Advent is a way for us to open hearts and receive God’s Christmas gift—His only son, Jesus. It is by honoring the Advent that we can truly appreciate Christmas for what it is—the celebration of the birth of Christ. While nine out of ten Americans celebrate Christmas, increasingly fewer Americans celebrate it as a religious holiday. Only 46% of adults in the United States view it solely as a religious holiday, 55% say they view it as religious and secular, and roughly only half of all Americans will attend church that day. Ever more Americans are embracing the secularization of Christmas and abandoning religious aspects of it.
This is understandable. Indeed, Christmas is a federal holiday. In order to fully separate church from state, the secular aspects of the holiday are played out over its more religious aspects. Santa’s sleigh is more likely to be displayed in a public park than a Nativity Scene. A business, not wishing to offend customers, may be more likely to display a “holiday” tree rather than a likeness of the Angel Gabriel. By itself none of this is bad, the first amendment to the United State’s Constitution does state that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” So while a city planner may be loathe to exhibit a manger with the infant messiah, all Americans are free to display their own nativity in their own yard if they so wish.
Sadly, a declining number of Americans actually wish to do so, according to Pew Research. 33% of Americans would prefer to take the Christ out of Christmas. This isn’t a “War on Christmas” as 90% of Americans still celebrate the holiday.
This is a statement on Christianity in America. Polls show that while Christianity is on the decline, it’s still very much a majority religion. Between 70-89 percent of Americans identify as Christian. The problem is that most of those Christians don’t know what it means to be a Christian. There is an ignorance among Christians about their own religion. How can a Christian be serious about their faith if they know nothing about it?
Jesus Is the Reason for the Season
According to the above mentioned poll from Pew Forum, a declining number of Americans believe the elements of the Christmas story. Only 66% believe that Jesus was born to a virgin, while 75% believe He was placed in a manger, 68% believe that the magi followed a star to find Him, and only 67% believe that an angel announced the Messiah’s birth to shepherds. Just 57% of all Americans, scarcely over half, believe all four of those elements of the nativity. Those numbers combined with the the above 70-89% who claim to be Christians, show that not all Christians even believe the basic tenets of Christianity! How can we bring the light of Jesus into the world if we don’t even believe the wonder and miracles surrounding His very birth?
Nearly 2,000 years ago, God gave us all a Christmas present. Mary wrapped that gift in swaddling cloths and placed the little bundle in a manger. Approximately three decades later, that gift took all of the sins of the world and placed them with Him on a cross to die. Christmas is a way for Christians to acknowledge that gift, and celebrate the birth of the infant Messiah who came to save us all. Santa and his elves are fun ways to teach children to be generous, and the fact that it’s federal holiday makes it easier for families to spend time with each other, but none of those things are Christmas. Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ. As a Christian, we would all do well to remember that.
The Advent Season
The Advent season helps us to reflect on God’s holy gift to humanity. It begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and lasts until Christmas Eve. Not all denominations celebrate Advent. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox celebrate it, as do certain Protestant denominations; Anglican, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalian, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians among them. Only in the past three decades have Baptists began celebrating the Advent season. However, since the Baptist church is more autonomous than other denominations, only a few Baptists recognize it.
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Advent began in the fourth century AD as a preparation for the Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas (January 6). The Epiphany celebrates both the baptism of Jesus and the visit of the Magi. In the early church, the time between advent and the Epiphany was forty days, which was set aside for fasting and repentance. 200 years later, St. Gregory the Great linked Advent with Christ’s Second Coming. It was a time for Christians to prepare their hearts and minds for the Kingdom to come. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the church began to link Advent with the birth of Christ. Modern Advent celebrations combine all three traditions.
The Advent season is a time to reflect on how the ancient Jews awaited the long promised Messiah (indeed, they are still waiting). This is a reminder to Christians of our own need for salvation. Advent is a time to look back in time, to that day, 2000 years ago when Christ was born in a stable, and revered by an audience of livestock, shepherds, and astronomers. It is also a time to look to the future, when Christ will come again and peace will finally reign throughout the Earth.
The symbol of the Advent is the wreath, made of evergreens and decorated with pine cones or nuts. The evergreens symbolize continuous life, the fact that it’s a wreath, and therefore circular with no beginning or end, is symbolic of eternity. The seeds or pine cones represent life and resurrection. Taken together it depicts the immorality of our souls and the eternal life that we will have with God through the life and resurrection of His Son. Laid around the wreath are four candles, three are purple and one is rose colored, while a fifth, white, candle is placed in the center. Purple is symbolic of royalty and penitence, the rose color represents joy, while the center candle represents Christ and is lit on Christmas Eve. The light on all the candles signifies that Jesus the Christ is the Light of the world.
Each Sunday has its own special meaning. The candle that is lit on the first Sunday represents the Second Coming of Christ. The second and third Sunday’s are for John the Baptist, his role and his teachings. While the candle that Is lit on the fourth Sunday is a time to remember all the events that preceded the birth of Jesus. Advent season is steeped in tradition and dripping with symbolism. It is a way for Christians to remember the holiness of the season and the reason why we celebrate: the birth and saving grace of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. It is a very solemn, holy, and reverent time of year. More frequently, however, it is being pushed aside for Christmas, which itself is losing its own religious meaning.
The War on Advent
As a culture, we start to prepare for the Christmas season the day after Halloween. In so doing, we mow over All Saints’ Day, Thanksgiving, and Advent. As our culture replaces Christ with Elf on the Shelf, and mangers with sleighs, we lose the spirit behind Christmas. The secular elements of Christmas aren’t bad, but they should take a back seat to the Nativity. Unfortunately, we are ever so slowly, but surely, replacing the religious with the secular, the divine with the profane.
As such, we are removing Advent. We’re replacing it with a secular version of Christmas. If Advent prepares our hearts for the birth of Christ, and we’ve ignored Advent for so long, is it any wonder that nearly half of all Christians don’t believe in Christ’s miraculous birth? The War on Christmas will not be lost because of atheists. The war will be lost because of complacent Christians. It will be lost because Christians would rather put up a tree November 1st and fill their homes with decorations of grinches and elves, than display an Advent wreath.
By losing Advent, we’re losing a beautiful and meaningful way to honor the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It’s not too late. We can bring back Advent. We can celebrate the tradition and symbolism inherent in the holiday and return to the spirit of penitence, forgiveness, and love that marks the season.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2017 Anna Watson