RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
For a lot of people, Christmas Eve means a pilgrimage, pageant, Midnight Mass or lessons in carols. But a Pew Research Center study finds that while most Americans celebrate Christmas, fewer of them consider it a religious holiday. The tendency is especially pronounced among younger Americans. Nine in 10 millennials told Pew they celebrate Christmas, but far fewer, just 4 in 10, mark it as a religious holiday. Elizabeth Drescher is a religious studies professor at Santa Clara University. She's also the author of the book "Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America's Nones" - that's N-O-N-E-S. Elizabeth, welcome.
ELIZABETH DRESCHER: Thank you so much.
SUAREZ: The study says more than half of Americans think the religious aspects of Christmas are less emphasized now than they were in the past but less than half are bothered by that. What do you see in those numbers?
DRESCHER: Well, you know, I mean, I think we've seen a shift in the last 20 years or so in how people understand what religion and the spiritual are. And part of this comes out of the rise of the religious right in the 1980s, which defined religion in a fairly narrow kind of way. And for lots of people, that was a big turn off. And at the same time, you know, Americans value independence. And we have lots of free choices and a lot of exposure to different religious traditions. And so for people to say that Christmas is less religious, it probably means that it's less associated with going to church and following along with pretty narrowly defined statements of belief associated with the Christmas story.
SUAREZ: There were some interesting things lurking in Pew's numbers on the Christmas celebration. Even as a large number of people see Christmas as a cultural holiday now and plan to mark it as such, majorities told Pew they accept parts or all of the gospel narrative of the birth of Jesus as a factual story.
DRESCHER: Well, actually, they didn't say factual, they said true. And that's a big difference. What we don't know is, are people accepting that as true in the way that pre-modern people understood truth? Which was, there's something about this that is powerfully meaningful in our life. And that's very different than the kind of factual empirical understandings of truth. So I think when we see those numbers, what we see is people saying that story, that narrative, that myth is still true with a capital T in a really meaningful way. And I may not be so worried about whether it's factual.
SUAREZ: If people aren't marking Christmas as a religious holiday, how are they celebrating it? What does American Christmas look like going forward?
DRESCHER: Well, you know, again, the practices that are central to Christianity - gathering, sharing common rituals - those are still parts of the activities that people are saying are important in their celebration of Christmas. I mean, millennials in the survey said that they were going to spend time with family and friends on the holiday. I think doing that at a specific space down the street that has a service at, you know, 11:00 a.m. on Christmas morning, that may be less a part of the process.
SUAREZ: That's Elizabeth Drescher. She's an author and religious studies professor at Santa Clara University. Thanks so much for joining us.
DRESCHER: Thank you. It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.