By Christina Calloway
PNT senior writer
Despite a recent poll’s findings, most people contacted in eastern New Mexico say Christmas has not lost its religious meaning.
Only half those responding to a Pew Research Center poll said they considered Christmas a religious holiday but locals say those results are far from what they celebrate in their own lives.
“I think it’s religious, it started with giving gifts to Jesus,” said Portales High School track and field athlete Matthew Shelly. “Even Santa Claus is a saint.”
Shelly noted that the commercialism of the holiday can change the way others celebrate but he said in addition to the good food, exchanging of gifts and hanging with his family, he also goes to mass at midnight.
“People might use the holiday to get gifts but that’s not what it’s about,” Shelly said.
The poll released Wednesday found that many Americans say Christmas is becoming an occasion focused instead on visiting family and friends and exchanging gifts.
One-third of the 2,000 participants said they viewed Christmas as a cultural celebration.
The results also showed that church attendance will be higher than usual during the holiday, but of the 69 percent of respondents who said they attended Christmas worship services as a child, only 54 percent will do so this year.
This doesn’t surprise Furgus Tunnell, pastor of Westbrook Baptist Church in Clovis.
Tunnell said as time goes on, he feels the country is pulling away from religion.
He agreed there is an uptick in attendance for holiday services but he feels his small church has a specific niche group.
“I’m anticipating a little more in attendance (today),” Tunnell said.
He feels Christmas has always been about celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.
“The whole reason we have Christmas is not for Christmas trees or presents,” Tunnell said. “Yes those are nice but everybody knows we celebrate Christ’s birthday.”
The survey is the latest to measure the gulf between many Americans and religious life. About 20 percent of Americans overall say they have no religious affiliation, a figure which is expected to rise among younger generations.
The Pew Christmas study found a similar trend. While two-thirds of people age 65 and older consider Christmas religious, only 40 percent of adults under age 30 agree.
But for 14-year-old Teresa Albert, that is not the case. The PHS freshman said her family keeps tradition alive and because as a young person who believes in God, Christmas is an important holiday to celebrate.
“We’re Catholic, we all believe in God,” Albert said.
In addition to going to mass, Albert said her family watches all the sports games and are big Dallas Cowboy fans. She said traditions also include playing games, eating and opening presents.
“We do it with love,” Albert said.
Eight-in-10 non-Christians will celebrate the holiday, but mostly as a cultural celebration. A separate Pew poll found about one-third of U.S. Jews had a Christmas tree at home last year.
Eastern New Mexico University anthropology professor David Kilby said the study was interesting but not surprising.
“Anthropologically we know that religion and ritual are very important to humans,” said Kilby, “but while their importance may be fairly constant, what they mean to us as a society is constantly changing.”
Kilby said the religious views of Americans are always in the process of changing, but more recently has it been socially acceptable to publicly question religion without the danger of becoming an outcast.
“As the ‘Duck Dynasty’ kerfluffle shows us, religious views also appear to have become more polarized during this period,” Kilby said. “So, it’s not surprising that fewer people are focused on the strictly religious aspect of the holiday. But, the other part of what we’re seeing is that even as the specific religious views of Americans are changing, the rituals remain important for social, economic, and political reasons.”
The survey of about 2,000 people was conducted from Dec. 3 through Dec. 8 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percent.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.