The Ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future of Secular Christmas

9 mins read

The Past

Of course, the story of Christmas originates with the Christian story of the birth of Jesus Christ, the son of God, who Christians consider to be the saviour of the world. The Nativity story is an incredibly memorable story featuring shepherds, angels, stars and kings from afar; despite the fact that not all of these elements are featured in the same Gospels retellings. 

Anyway, Christmas was not celebrated immediately after Christ’s birth, with the death of Christ at Easter being the main celebration in the early centuries. 

However Pope Julius I decided that the birth of Christ deserved to be celebrated also and chose 25th December to align and absorb some of the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. Celebrating in the winter months was not uncommon as many countries already celebrated the Winter Solstice, showing the passing of the shortest coldest days of the year. 

The holiday was first called the Feast of the Nativity with the custom spreading to England by the end of the sixth century and by the Middle Ages it was the more common Winter celebration.

Catholic Churches began celebrating by having a mass that began at Midnight on Christmas Eve and Protestant Churches began holding candlelight services on Christmas Eve also.

It was only around Victorian times that the Christmas we recognise today began to form. 

A key influence of this was the writing of Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. His tale of goodwill, family and charity inspired the shift of what Christmas was about and introduced the first elements of a more secular Christmas into Britain. Inspired by Scrooge’s change of heart, the rich and wealthy Victorians would provide gifts or feasts for poorer neighbours and tenants. 

Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, also popularised the Christmas tree in Britain after bringing it over from Germany. This was also the time that Christmas cards, carols and cakes became popular after the American interpretation of Christmas spread over. 

The commercial side of Christmas also began during this time with it becoming the first time presents and food were readily available to purchase. An increase in travel connections ensured the Christmas turkey tradition to begin as they could be easily transported around the country. 

From this point more and more new Christmas traditions were introduced including cards, jumpers and Christmas adverts. 

The Present

The present situation was made abundantly clear by the recent survey by the Office of National Statistics showing that for the first time ever in England and Wales, Christianity is now a minority religion.

Christianity has been on the decline for several years now but to officially be a minority religion feels strange since Christian ceremonies and rites are still at the heart of British culture.

In a 2021 YouGov survey, 61% of Brits celebrate Christmas as a completely secular event and 31% see it as a mix. 

Just 4% celebrate it as a solely religious event. 

The correlation between the rise of Christmas and the decline of Christianity seems counterproductive. Every year it seems the Christmas season becomes longer and longer with the first Christmas advert of the year coming in November no less. 

Many of the Christian Christmas traditions are dying whereas the commercially introduced traditions have remained. 

Of course, the reason a Christian Christmas used to be more popular is because it was much more enforced in society in the past, modern day secularisation has changed where people get their guidance from. 

Christianity has struggled to adapt to the modern day. The ONS census data also shows that every major religion increased over the ten-year period, except for Christianity. Their absolutist and sometimes aggressive stances on topics such as gay marriage, abortion and transgender rights have made people lose touch with their beliefs.

Only 22% go to Church on Christmas, 47% of young people think Midnight Mass is a thing of the past and 46% have never sung a traditional Christmas carol.

This year more than most people care about spending time with loved ones after these years were taken by the pandemic. The ideals of spending time with friends and family, gift giving and charity clearly remain at the heart of the modern 21st-century Christmas. 

The Future

Following the current trend of Christmas, will there be a point where Christmas is ever associated with a religious holiday?

Christianity is often a religion that receives hatred for its absolutist standpoints on topics that in modern-day society are outdated. There is a strange element to the relationship between religion and secularisation that for 11 months of the year, Christianity is condemned, but the moment the temperature drops people are more than happy to celebrate their holidays. 

The commercialisation of Christmas is more concerning, not from a religious standpoint but from a financial one. Concerns are arising that in coming years, people will not be able to afford the standard of Christmas that companies push with the current economic crisis in the UK.

The Salvation Army said around two-thirds of adults are worried they will not be able to afford a Christmas dinner this year and many parents are having to forego their own Christmas presents to ensure their children don’t go without. 

It has been difficult to fault the steady secularisation of Christmas because of its adopted meaning. Togetherness, family, friends, good food, charity and joy with a couple of presents. Christians come across as the Grinch for demanding their holiday back. 

However, what happens when Christmas loses all of its meaning, original and adopted? When it’s no longer about the birth of Jesus or celebrating loved ones but instead about a level of commercialism that people can’t afford and the planet can’t hold?

With the average person in 2022 being projected to spend £440 on gifts per person (with Scots being projected to spend the most with £606) it seems that even the quality time of Christmas has been lost. 

The environmental impact of Christmas is getting out of control also. 

In fact, the University of Manchester recently calculated that our combined Christmas dinners produce the same carbon footprint as a single car travelling 6,000 times around the world.

That doesn’t even begin to cover the waste of wrapping paper, trees and buying an excessive amount of presents. 

Around 20 per cent of gifts will be unwanted this year, ending up in landfills.

The future of Christmas will not be a concern for secularisation, but a concern for it being accessible to anyone, even the people who originally celebrated the holiday. 

Hope is not lost. Hope has always been at the centre of Christmas, and if any time of the year can be resolved and restored to its former glory, it’s those winter months. Christmas has always brought out the best in people as they try their best and maybe that’s all people can do in times like this.

Wherever you turn, different people are concerned about where the holiday is headed. The future of Christmas is uncertain in these difficult times but hopefully whatever the future spirit of Christmas is, it’s a good one.

Featured Image Credit: Canva

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Film, Media and Journalism student who writes about things that catch her interest. Instagram @charlsutcliffe

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