Religious holidays are a peculiar phenomena. In a cultural context that professes secularism, pluralism and rationalism, these holidays seem somewhat at odds with contemporary Western creeds. Hence, the question – why are they important? Why are holidays like Easter and Christmas celebrated by so many people?
One could argue that they are leftovers of a Christianised culture – and in a sense, this is correct. Christmas and Easter (amongst other feasts) are the most important Christian feasts, celebrating the Incarnation and Resurrection of the saviour, Jesus Christ. They marked the Western calendar, and so, the rhythm of life as they subsumed and supplanted mid-winter and spring celebrations.
Yet, they are not just leftovers. Not only do these Christian holidays remain in the calendar, they are celebrated with great meaning and fanfare, even to the point of being the most joyous part of the annual calendar.
Children universally look forward to opening their presents on Christmas eve or morning, or seeing if the Easter bunny has come. Even many adults secretly like it. And, despite the potential for conflict, these holidays mark the time when we gather together with our family, friends or co-workers.
These holidays perform a social function. But why do these holidays move us to be more social-able?
We could point to the presents and chocolates, and note how these religious feasts have become commercialised. Western capitalism relies on these holidays to keep the economy ticking over. Companies invest large amounts of thought, money and energy to encourage people to participate in these holidays.
So, it could be that capitalism is manipulating us to be more social. It uses the religious, familial and social dimensions of these holidays in order to push products.
In many ways, this is true. Christian feasts have become commercial holidays – homages to the products, marketing strategies, and constantly stimulated desires that make-up the commercial existence around which Westerners base their lives. Commerce is king – and god too – in many ways.
Yet, even this explanation does not completely explain why Christian feasts retain importance and stimulate religious and social activity. Moreover, commercialisation has occurred to a number of holidays and feasts, like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, yet these days have not attained the significance of Christmas or Easter.
Further, we hear the constant refrain in the West, especially around Christmas and Easter, that ‘money and things won’t make you happy’. This refrain is a direct challenge to the commercialisation of Western life, and a recognition of its ultimate emptiness.
Ultimately, we need to turn to the intrinsic religious meaning of these holidays to give us an answer – though this meaning can be variously appropriated and interpreted. Religious holidays like Christmas and Easter point to a deeper sense of meaning and transcendence around which other things, like social gatherings and products, gravitate.
They provide points of transcendence in a relatively flat secular space, around which we can situate our lives together in some kind of ultimate meaning and framework. The author and journalist, A.N. Wilson put it like this:
“…the existence of language is one of the many phenomena - of which love and music are the two strongest - which suggest that human beings are very much more than collections of meat. They convince me that we are spiritual beings, and that the religion of the incarnation, asserting that God made humanity in His image, and continually restores humanity in His image, is simply true. As a working blueprint for life, as a template against which to measure experience, it fits.”
There is something in Christianity represented by holidays like Christmas and Easter that is attractive and meaningful – that ‘fits’ our experience and aspirations for life. Christianity’s message is fundamentally and deeply positive: God loves us so much that he wants to become one of us and relate with us (celebrated at Christmas).
On top of that, God in Jesus dies for us to confront our evil and violence and liberate us in love (Good Friday): “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Finally, Jesus rises from the dead to show us that life transcends death, offering humanity forgiveness and everlasting love despite their murder and abandonment of him.
As N.T. Wright shows in his extensive historical study, the way the early Christians understood and spoke about the Resurrection was unique in the ancient world, though it had strong connections to Jewish theology. He shows that the story of the Resurrection was not manufactured by Christians as an irrational fairytale.
This uniqueness reverberates across the centuries. In the Resurrection, the early Christians encountered Jesus in an unexpected way that changed their minds about who God is, and gave them the courage to form new communities, despite the threat of death and violence. According to their own accounts, the Resurrection was the impetus for the early Christians to love like Jesus, because they experienced Jesus’ peace and forgiveness overcoming fear, violence and death.
Christianity has clearly been in decline in the West, but it is not an easy skin to shed. It has formed the Western mindset in fundamental ways – even to the point that pop culture can’t escape the fundamental Christian troupes of birth, death, resurrection, good, evil and redemption.
Christianity represents the greatest victory: love overcoming death and violence. It is a theme that is constantly rehearsed in Hollywood, and finds its credibility in a person who dies and rises in love.
On the Cross, Jesus encounters a murderous humanity who use violence and scapegoats to appease the gods and gain unity amongst themselves. Jesus confronts humanity at its worst to offer them a way out in love and forgiveness.
Our context is not much different – violence is still used to assert one’s will and power, and the media, internet and television are constantly feeding off conflict and the latest scandal, and are on the hunt for people to target, blame and ridicule. All this keeps us ‘entertained’, while we neglect the call of love to deeper forms of kindness, humility and self-giving. Holidays like Christmas and Easter remind us of this call – even if many retain a somewhat marginal affiliation with Christian churches.
Despite the decline in Christian affiliation, Christian feasts still provide existential reassurance in a chaotic, dangerous and disorientating world. Christian holidays offer something deeply meaningful and reassuring, giving hope that life can be lived with some sense of integrity and purpose. This ultimate meaning provides a framework – however, tenuous for some – for familial, social and commercial activities.
Importantly, these holidays touch the high and low points of our lives – birth, death, evil, pain, family, eternal life. They ultimately show us that our lives matter in the eyes of the Creator who is the reason ‘why there is anything rather than nothing’ and who loves us absolutely, even into eternity.
The question itself implies that religious holidays should not be this popular because the overall levels of Christian religiosity are declining. According to the European Social Survey, on average 23% of Europeans in 2014 attended religious services once a month or more often, while an additional 20% attended services only for special Holy days. Shares of people attending religious services only on Holy days vary across Europe starting from 11.6% in the Netherlands up to 38% in Lithuania. This shows that today a significant share of Europeans still recognize the religious (or traditional, as I would say) nature of such Holy days as Christmas or Easter by taking part in dedicated religious services while staying religiously passive during the rest of the year.
Having an official day off encourages people to spend time with friends and family, to reconstruct the festive atmosphere of celebration from our childhood or from movies and TV shows.
However, I would suggest to look at these numbers critically. Major Christian religious holidays – Christmas and Easter – are no longer exclusively religious. Though religions are declining in popularity and influence, over time they become embedded in culture: norms and traditions of Christianity are now being transmitted via popular culture and education. Even nonbelievers get exposed to some religious influence through culture, and this is extremely visible in relation to popularity of religious holidays even among nonreligious people.
Religious holidays stay popular because people perceive them not as religious but rather as traditional – celebrated by their families, local communities, countries. Over time on all the 3 levels of celebration (family, local, national) religious holidays acquire specific additional traditions (e.g. special meals cooked in different ways across regions or specific costumes to wear with your family and friends). Even attending religious services only on Holy days looks more like following family or community traditions rather than acknowledging the divine nature of these events.
Pictured: Is Christmas shopping a religious activity?
As religious holidays are used to promote certain goods and increase consumption, they are themselves being promoted and retain their popularity.
The popularity of religious holidays is, to some extent, preserved by the secular states that recognize them as national public holidays (like Christmas, Easter Monday or All Saints' Day in Belgium). Having an official day off encourages people to spend time with friends and family, to reconstruct the festive atmosphere of celebration from our childhood or from movies and TV shows.
The last (but not the least) reason for the continued popularity of religious holidays is … marketing! Long ahead of Christmas or Easter shopping malls, stores and streets are being decorated to create the very special atmosphere of a Holy day (and encourage consumption, of course). Grocery stores and supermarkets promote festive food and decorations. Moreover, TV shows and Hollywood movies use religious holidays as easily recognizable settings for the action: miracles and disasters happen to the characters when they organize a Christmas party or look for Easter eggs. In other words, while religious holidays are used to promote certain goods and increase consumption, they are themselves being promoted and retain their popularity.
The popularity of religious holidays nowadays stems from traditions (family, local or national) and from popular culture, but not from religiosity.
In other words, the popularity of religious holidays nowadays stems from traditions (family, local or national) and from popular culture, but not from religiosity. We just love holidays and festivities of any kind, as well as spending time with our loved ones, reconstructing our family traditions of celebration. Having an official day off creates additional motivation to celebrate :)