Time Magazine has declared the death of religion more times than they’ve said “Bush lied, Children died.” And that’s a lot. But I think here they do have a point here although I think they overstate it by a mile.
Millions of Americans go to church on Christmas Eve. They crowd shoulder-to-shoulder in pews to sing “Silent Night” and light candles and listen to soloists belt out “O Holy Night.” More than a few watch nativity plays that recreate the birth of Jesus with a cast of 10-year-olds in bathrobes. When the service is over, they exchange hearty “Merry Christmas!” wishes before getting in their cars and heading home.
And they stay home the next day. Or they drive to Grandma’s, or go to the movies. But however they spend Christmas Day — “the feast of Christmas” on the Christian liturgical calendar — one way most Americans don’t celebrate it is by going to church. While demand for Christmas Eve celebrations is so high that some churches hold as many as five or six different services on the 24th of December, most Protestant churches are closed on the actual religious holiday. For most Christians, Christmas is a day for family, not faith.
If that sounds like the triumph of culture over religion, it is. By the middle of the 20th century, Americans had embraced a civil religion that among other things elevated the ideal of family to a sacrosanct level. The Norman Rockwell image of family gathered around the tree became a Christmas icon that rivaled the baby Jesus. And Christmas Eve services — with their pageantry and familiar traditions — became just one part of the celebration, after the family dinner and before the opening of presents.
I know a bunch of Christian families and they all went to their churches on Christmas. Now, I’ve read in a number of places how some protestant churches are closed on Christmas but I hardly think it’s the norm. But I do also believe that our Christmas culture owes more to Dickens and Rockwell than Jesus.