The Christmas season brings plenty of good cheer, gatherings of families and friends, sparkling lights that illuminate our darkening days and much more that is festive and fun.
It also brings much that is sacred and essential to Catholics and all Christians. Christmas is when our story began. It’s when Jesus, our Lord and savior, was born to a virgin mother and laid in a manger, surrounded by barnyard animals, because there was no room in the inn for the Holy Family as they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register for a census.
The birth, as told in the Gospel of Luke, was heralded by an angel, whose words to the shepherds of Bethlehem were, “Be not afraid, for I bring you tidings of great joy.” The Gospel of Matthew tells us of the three wise men from the East who, guided by a star, visited the babe bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
This is the story of Christmas that we, as Christians, need to tell. We need to be sure that our children know it, that it’s emphasized in religious education classes—and in our homes.
It’s a story that illustrates perfectly, even for the youngest students, the truth of God’s love for humanity. In sending his only son to us, he chose not to send a crowned king to rule, but a helpless infant born in the humblest of circumstances—someone who would walk among the people, teaching and preaching what became a religious faith that changed the world.
It’s disheartening, then, to see that the religious aspects of Christmas are continuing to slide.
A study released in early December by the Pew Research Center found that 65 percent of Catholics celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, compared with 68 percent in a 2013 survey; 51 percent see Christmas as more religious than cultural, down from 59 percent four years ago; and 68 percent said they would go to church, down from 76 percent.
As for the four biblical stories outlined above, Catholics generally had a high level of belief, but there too, the numbers are trending downward.
In 2017, 83 percent said they believe in the virgin birth (86 percent in 2014), 82 percent said an angel announced Jesus’ birth to shepherds (90 percent), 80 percent said wise men guided by a star brought Jesus gifts (84 percent), and 87 percent said Jesus was laid in a manger (92 percent).
In 2014, 76 percent said they believed all four elements happened; in 2017, 71 percent said that.
While those numbers are not dramatically poor, the survey found that millennials, including Christian millennials, are less likely than older respondents to believe all four biblical stories.
We don’t want to wring our hands over these numbers, but we do want to open our eyes and try to halt or even reverse the slide. The Christmas story, after all, is the start of what has been called The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Let’s not forget to tell it, again and again, as we celebrate Christmas this year.