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Thursday, October 22, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sue Lani Madsen: Christian, secular traditions shouldn’t clash at Christmas

Merry Christmas!

According to a December 2015 Rasmussen Reports telephone survey, 64 percent of Americans prefer Merry Christmas as their seasonal greeting. Only 24 percent prefer Happy Holidays and 16 percent are too busy eating cookies to answer. All right, I made up that last part, they’re just undecided.

Rasmussen also reports 71 percent “hold to the central Christian belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God sent to Earth to die for their sins.” That’s much higher than I expected. The telling statistics for the future are the demographics, with younger adults less likely to know Jesus Christ and to prefer the more secular Happy Holidays greeting.

Christians are commissioned to tell the good news of Jesus Christ by both word and works. While a majority of Americans polled by Rasmussen this past September believe churches and people of faith are essential for a healthy community, fully a third of Americans believe they are unnecessary. Does it matter if we become a more secular nation? What does our society lose when we lose touch with our cultural roots?

We can look to Europe for examples. Matt Edminster, a Colbert native now serving as pastor of a rural church in Rapla, Estonia, is home for a month sharing his experiences on the secular humanist frontier. He estimates Estonia is probably 10 to 15 years ahead of the U.S. in terms of a totally secularized society.

Dutch students were working with his church in Estonia, and a visit to the local public school was suggested. One member of the Rapla congregation is a teacher at the school and made arrangements for the cultural exchange. The young Dutchmen visited each class at the school and answered questions about life in the Netherlands.

When asked about upcoming activities at home, they replied they were looking forward to celebrating Christmas and the birth of the Christ child. The Estonian students were sincerely puzzled. What is this Christ child? What does that have to do with Christmas? The Dutch visitors were astonished the Estonians had never heard about the babe in the manger, shepherds tending their flocks, or wise men following a star.

The school principal was listening from the hallway as the presenters moved from class to class in the school. She is not a Christian but a well-read woman who values a broad, liberal education. The principal was shocked to find this gap in the cultural literacy of her students. She called the teachers together to plan a new curriculum to provide this basic information.

Even in a secularized society, there is a place for understanding what it means to be a Christian. Christian theology has infused Western culture with the concepts of grace, forgiveness, charity and hope. It is part of a basic education.

Our quality of life relies on individuals taking these concepts beyond words to works. Every study comparing charitable giving and volunteering between the self-identified religious and nonreligious confirms why a firm foundation of faith matters. Arthur C. Brooks, in his book “Who Really Cares,” concluded, “In years of research, I have never found a measurable way in which secularists are more charitable than religious people.” This statement applies to all people of faith, but this is still overwhelmingly a culturally Christian society when measured by the numbers. As we move to a secularized society, we risk losing this cultural drive.

For Christians, Christmas marks the beginning of the redemption story that reaches its crescendo at Easter. The roots of many North American traditions are found in Europe’s pre-Christian midwinter festivals, adopted as the new faith spread. The old traditions gained new meanings as a time to remember the best gift of all, the Light of the World, Jesus Christ. For secularists, the old traditions make Christmas meaningful without its namesake.

There is no war between the sacred and the secular celebrations of Christmas. We have two holidays sharing a name and overlapping traditions. Most people celebrate both and they peacefully coexist in American communities among men and women of good will. Whether you believe in the Prince of Peace or not, let’s focus on peacemaking. Happy Holidays!

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at

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