And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
Luke 2:10-11, King James Version
BANGOR, Maine — Josh Plourde sat alone Christmas Eve at the back of St. John’s Episcopal Church, an unlit candle in one hand, the order of service in the other.
For the 22-year-old, going to church on Dec. 24 is a holiday tradition. As a child he attended Mass on Christmas Eve at Roman Catholic churches with his family.
“I’m not really a religious person, but I still think it’s appropriate to go,” he said shortly before 4 p.m. as he and about 150 other worshippers waited for the service at the stone church on French Street to begin. “I live just down the street. It’s the Gothic architecture and the music that gets me in the door.”
Plourde is part of a shrinking minority, according a recent Pew Research Center survey that compared adults’ childhood Christmas traditions to their adult plans. The survey found that nine in 10 Americans intended to celebrate Christmas but only half thought of it mostly as a religious holiday, while one-third viewed it as more of a cultural holiday.
While seven in 10 Americans said they typically attended Christmas Eve or Christmas Day religious services, just 54 percent said they planned to attend religious services this year. Adults under the age of 30 were far less likely than older Americans to view Christmas as more of a religious than cultural holiday.
The survey, conducted Dec. 3-8 among a representative sample of 2,001 adults nationwide, found that 86 percent intended to gather with family and friends on Christmas Day. An identical number said they planned to buy gifts for family and friends.
Plourde said while he grew up attending midnight Mass, he went to the early service this year because he was meeting friends later in the evening.
For Michael Healy, 73, of Bangor, Christmas is a religious celebration, but it’s not the holiday of his youth.
“I’d like to see Christmas be more of what it used to be and what it should be,” he said. “I think it’s gotten too commercial and we should get back to being more responsive to the needs of others than ourselves.”
Culturally, Christmas Day is the culmination of the holiday season for most Americans who do not view it as a religious holiday. For most Christians, Dec. 25 is the beginning of the Christmas liturgy.
“Christmas begins once you’ve had your Christmas communion,” the Rev. Marguerite A.H. Steadman, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, said as she prepared for the first two Christmas Eve services. “The season begins now and stretches for 12 days. It concludes with the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6 and that begins a whole new season of God making himself manifest in different ways.”
Christmas and Easter are closely linked and mirror the same themes of God’s redemptive love for us all, she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story requires correction. The Rev. Deacon J. Ann McAlhany, not Marguerite A.H. Steadman, held the Gospel during the procession at St. John's Episcopal Church during Christmas Eve services Tuesday in Bangor.