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By Terry Mattingly
This question rocks the internet year after year: Is “Die Hard” a Christmas movie?
How about “Frosty the Snowman,” “Home Alone,” “Elf” or “A Bad Moms Christmas”? Is “A Christmas Story” really a “Christmas” story? What about those Hallmark Channel visions of romance, complicated families and wall-to-wall holiday decorations?
The answer to these questions, and many others, hinges on how Americans answer another question: What is Christmas?
Ask that question to an iPhone, and Siri will quote Wikipedia: “Christmas is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, observed primarily on December 25 as a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world.”
Most people know that much of the story, according to a new survey by Lifeway Research in Nashville. Nearly 75% of Americans say Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, and even more believe that Jesus is the Son of God the Father.
After that, things get fuzzy.
“Lots of people celebrate Christmas, but some have no interest in celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway. “But even some of the people who do take the Christmas message seriously don’t understand what it means. …
“This is a story that hasn’t changed for 2,000 years, yet many people struggle to tell the story and get the details right. Many don’t know why Jesus was born.”
Nine out of 10 adult Americans celebrate Christmas, including many non-Christians, according to the September survey of 1,005 Americans. Participants were selected to balance gender, age, region, ethnicity, education and religion. This finding matches earlier research.
While Catholics (99%) and Protestants (97%) are the most likely to celebrate Christmas, 82% of religiously unaffiliated Americans also take part, along with 74% of believers in other religious faiths. Location matters, as well. Residents of the Midwest (94%) are more likely to observe Christmas than those in the Northeast (88%).
According to a 2018 Lifeway survey, 65% of Americans insist that Christmas should focus more on the story of Jesus. However, only 22% were confident that they could share the biblical account — from memory — of the Christmas story, with 31% saying they might get a few details wrong. Among self-identified Christians, 45% of those who attended worship services four times a month or more were confident that they knew the crucial details.
The goal of the 2021 survey, said McConnell, was to probe deeper on questions about the identity of Jesus and how his birth is connected to doctrines that have united Christians through the centuries.
“Lots of people seem to be missing the point,” he said. “They fail to see how the birth of Jesus is part of a larger story of redemption.”
For example, 72% of those surveyed agreed that Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago — with 49% strongly agreeing with that statement. However, while 80% affirmed that Jesus is the Son of God the Father, only 41% said Jesus existed — as part of the Holy Trinity — before his birth in Bethlehem. Nearly a third (32%) disagreed with that belief and another 28% were not sure.
It wasn’t surprising that religiously unaffiliated Americans were the least likely to agree with the survey questions about the birth and identity of Jesus. However, 48% of these so-called “nones” said they believed that Jesus is the Son of God, and 33% said that it’s true that Jesus was born 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem.
Why was Jesus born? More than half (51%) affirmed that he “came to give his life for many,” while 31% agreed that Jesus came to “give life in abundance” and to “give his life as a ransom for many.” Only 8% incorrectly affirmed that Jesus came to “condemn sinners.”
It’s clear that churches need to find a way to “simply tell the biblical story so that more people can understand what Christmas is about,” said McConnell.
Every December, he added, “lots of people expect some of their emotional needs to be met. Sometimes that happens and sometimes it doesn’t. What we see in the Christmas story is the God of the Bible showing how much he cares. … There’s more to that than a Hallmark movie or getting that gift that you want.”