Virgin America Part 2: Celebrating Christmas

Interesting results are out in a new poll from Pew Research about Christmas.

Celebrating Christmas and the Holidays, Then and Now | Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.

Nine-in-ten Americans say they celebrate Christmas, and three-quarters say they believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. But only about half see Christmas mostly as a religious holiday, while one-third view it as more of a cultural holiday. Virtually all Christians (96%) celebrate Christmas, and two-thirds see it as a religious holiday. In addition, fully eight-in-ten non-Christians in America also celebrate Christmas, but most view it as a cultural holiday rather than a religious occasion.

This poll reflects some changing beliefs about celebration of the holiday and religious affiations. So, check it out for that but let’s just focus on one aspect, the belief in the virgin birth of Jesus.

From Wikipedia:

The virgin birth of Jesus is the belief that Jesus was conceived in the womb of his mother Mary by the Holy Spirit and born while Mary was yet a virgin. The New Testament references are Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38.

The virgin birth was universally accepted in the Christian church by the 2nd century, was enshrined in the Apostles’ Creed, and, except for several minor sects, was not seriously challenged until the 18th century, and remains a basic article of belief in the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and most Protestant churches. Muslims also accept the virgin birth of Jesus.

73% of the respondants say they believe Jesus was born of a virgin. 19% don’t believe this, and 7% did not have an answer. The larger proportion of people who believe this non-scientific claim are religious. But of those people who say they are religiously unaffiliated, 32% claim to believe that Jesus was born to a virgin! I am confused. Are they just that into the myth and go along with it?

About nine-in-ten adults (91%) who see Christmas as a religious holiday say they believe Jesus was born of a virgin. However, even among those who celebrate Christmas as a cultural holiday and those who do not celebrate Christmas, roughly half say they believe in the virgin birth.

Many biblical scholars no longer believe in the literal Bible but this belief still holds fast. But it has complicated origins:

The impetus for the idea and the motivation which would eventually permanently seal it into the canon, came from the huge numbers of pagan converts. These converts didn’t want to leave behind Mithras and Perseus, who were both virgin-born, in exchange for a Jewish Messiah who was not.

The text in Isaiah 7:14, properly translated from the Hebrew Nevi’im reads:

Assuredly, my Lord will give you a sign of His own accord! Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son. Let her name him Immanuel.

This “young woman” may perhaps be unmarried or a physical virgin, but she should not be confused with the role of the Holy Virgins of the pagan temples of Ishtar whose job it was to bear savior- gods.
[...] By the time pagan philosophers like Celsus (fl. 180 CE) were denouncing the virgin-birth mythology, it was too late. The doctrine was already imbedded in the collective minds and manuscripts of the early Christians. Celsus anticipated the motive behind the virgin birth narrative and accused Christians of attributing the virgin birth to Jesus in order to imitate the pagan savior-gods

Things are always more complicated. And people don’t really below the surface, preferring to believe instead of question.

Honestly, this is concerning. People believe the wildest things.

Parthenogenesis does occur, but not in humans.

More on this story: Christmas in America: Belief in the Virgin birth and visits from Santa | Religion News Service.

CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Virgin Birth of Christ.

  9 comments for “Virgin America Part 2: Celebrating Christmas

  1. spookyparadigm
    December 18, 2013 at 11:23 AM

    To answer the virgin bit first, unless it is a specific kind of performance, a lot of people aren’t going to go out of their way to deny the virgin birth aspect in a poll about Christmas. It rude seem rude or a downer, even if it isn’t something you really believe in. I guarantee you if you asked “Is it possible for a woman to become pregnant without sex or technology?” or even “Do you believe that Jesus was born of a virgin birth?” in a poll about science or politics, you’d get quite different results.

    I haven’t digested the whole thing, and there are some aspects there that might be interesting. But asking about childhood memories on a topic as media-saturated and shaped as Christmas? Except for measuring nostalgia, I can’t imagine how useful that would be. And while there is a real increase in secularism amongst the young, I suspect largely due to the politicization of religion in the 2000s, the “Christmas as a cultural holiday” amongst the young isn’t a big surprise either. For a lot of people, the Christmas season (including New Years) is a major socialization holiday of parties, romance, etc.. It may also be their first foray into “grown-up” event hosting, social net building, etc.. And then as they have kids, it becomes a major focus of child-rearing (gifts, parties, events, decorating, crafts, visits to relatives, etc.).

    And I don’t think this has changed all that much. American Christmas practices, at least, aren’t really all that different from decades ago. The emphasis on parties and socialization. The worries about commercialization. I’d argue that far more people have had their Christmas* changed by the success of the Anglo-American (and here I’m not using that as a cute codeword for white, but instead the heavy impact of Victorian ideas of Christmas, most famously of course A Christmas Carol) holiday than there has been any real change to it.

    If anything, the Christmas as a cultural holiday was LESS controversial for much of the twentieth century when mainline Christianity still held huge cultural sway, before an identity politics version of American Christianity was weaponized. Think of Christmas movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bishop’s Wife** which are very much religious, complete with embodied angels and miracles, but in a far more low-key way that would likely earn Christian In Name Only accusations from the Warriors Defending Christmas today.

    *reminiscent of the more recent complaints of Halloween washing over local traditions (including big ones like Guy Fawkes Day or Day of the Dead) in other countries

    **one of the memorable characters in the film is an openly a-religious history professor who is also very easily read as gay (the actor who played him was closeted, but given that the character is an urban and sophisticated bachelor with a somewhat arch manner who is not married or a widower and who only speaks of women in a fatherly way, its pretty clear). And he’s the moral grounding of the film (he is the first to recognize the family problems of the main characters, and dispenses wisdom throughout)! Exactly how many Christian Christmas films today would cast say Stephen Fry in such a role?

  2. Chris Howard
    December 18, 2013 at 11:38 AM

    It really has evolved into a secular holiday. Most people I know (many of other faiths) celebrate it.

    Santa (read consumerism) has taken over the Jesus role, for many.

  3. spookyparadigm
    December 18, 2013 at 11:41 AM

    Though I suppose this Oatmeal comic makes part of my point somewhat more acidly

    http://theoatmeal.com/comics/christmas

  4. Gary
    December 18, 2013 at 12:31 PM

    “Unaffiliated” simply means that they don’t belong to church, not that they are non-believers.

    • spookyparadigm
      December 18, 2013 at 5:07 PM

      Yeah, this has been some of my issue with the much vaunted “Nones” that on further examination just reflect the very fragmented American Christianity that doesn’t necessarily have much to do with regular church attendance

  5. Warren
    December 18, 2013 at 12:40 PM

    A fun little holiday tie-in:

    The Nicean council was convened to codify what belief system would be “Christian” when they wrote the Nicean creed. The majority decided the virgin birth was not necessary, but when one delegate suggested he didn’t believe Mary was a virgin at all another delegate punched him.

    The puncher was jailed, but a vision that night changed the mind of the one who was punched and when the council reconvened the line “born of the Virgin Mary” was added.

    The puncher was Saint Nicholas, aka Santa.

  6. John Nowak
    December 19, 2013 at 11:16 AM

    I’m very suspicious of this sort of poll because, as was mentioned before, it isn’t clear if the people questioned are answering because of their knowledge of folklore or their belief.

    If I were asked “Was Hatshepsut fathered by a god?” I might answer yes, because she made that claim. I don’t think it’s true.

    • Gary
      December 19, 2013 at 12:27 PM

      To be fair, a lot of girls feel that way about their daddies.

  7. December 19, 2013 at 8:55 PM

    I grew up Jewish, and as a kid, my family celebrate Christmas morning with neighbors who were catholic. But after moving away, we no longer did that. Later, my brother was dating a Chinese exchange student who happened to be Buddhist, but had a Christmas tree because she thought that everyone in America celebrated Christmas (she was just trying to fit in). She was shocked to find out that my brother didn’t. Eventually they got married, and now they celebrate both Christmas and Chanukah. My mom, who really isn’t religious, still was not thrilled to visit them and see their small Christmas tree. My brother jokingly referred to it as a “Chanukah Bush”.

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