In my home city of Melbourne, an extraordinary cultural and religious drama is played out on Christmas Eve each year at the intersection of Flinders and Swanston Streets. Thousands of people mill around Federation Square, where the television spectacular Carols by Candlelight is broadcast live from the Sidney Myer Music Bowl.
Thousands of others congregate in and around St Paul’s Cathedral, directly across from Federation Square. They strain for a glimpse of the choir or for the sound of the organ as the cathedral fills and empties repeatedly for service after service, until the first communion of Christmas at midnight.
The whole thing is like a postmodern medieval mystery play, replete with costumes, processions, stages and music. Melburnians and tourists alike can be seen in their Sunday best, in shorts and thongs, wearing reindeer ears and Santa hats, with Christmas baubles for earrings, draped in tinsel. Stand on the steps of St Paul’s at the right time, and you can hear Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer blasting out from the Domain in one ear, Hark the Herald Angels Sing from the Cathedral in the other.
So what are all these people seeking? A resonance with Victorian family values? A connection to ancient faith? A chance to cavort in the city centre? In a nation where neither public singing nor public declarations of faith are valued, Christmas Eve presents a unique moment during which Australians engage in community singing, and a surprising number still go to church (more than 1.8 million each week).
The fact that Australians worship at so many different kinds of churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues means attendance statistics for Christmas are not readily available. The latest statistics on church attendance in the Church of England reveal that 2,400,000 people attended a church service on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day in 2013.
Some 800,000 of them took communion, suggesting a deep engagement with Christian belief and practice. Although the number of Anglican communicants has declined relative to the wider population, dropping from 6% to 2% in the last 50 years, Christmas remains the most popular day for church attendance in England.
By way of comparison, a study by Pew Research shows that in the United States, some 54% of the population intended to go to church for Christmas, with that number rising to 76% of those who identified as Roman Catholic. Some 51% of those surveyed saw Christmas as a religious holiday, and a further 32% as a cultural holiday.
In Bethlehem, pilgrims still flock to the Church of the Nativity, the site of Jesus’ birth, notwithstanding the political difficulties in physically reaching the town, and the lack of awareness on the part of some that there is a choice of dates. For western Christians, December 25 is the date to visit. With a slightly different calendar, eastern Christians visit on January 6.
In short, the ritual celebration of the “true meaning of Christmas” still draws people around the world to ponder the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ as the saviour of the world. In Australia, while Christmas attendance remains strong, we also know that Christmas church attendance has nevertheless changed.
A typical Christmas Day
The Protestant model Christmas for much of the 19th and 20th centuries involved attendance at mid-morning service, as if it were a Sunday. The traditional readings were from the poetic introductory verses of the Gospel of John, allowing the preacher to reflect in poetic or abstract terms on the miracle of the incarnation, the “Word made flesh”.
Large numbers also attended the traditional 8am holy communion service, taking the chance to fit church in efficiently between the ritual opening of presents first thing in the morning and putting the roast on for a grand family lunch.
Catholic Christians have long had the option of midnight mass, and a series of celebrations continuing into the afternoon of Christmas Day. Somewhere around the 1980s, the idea of midnight mass appears to have become especially popular in many other Christian traditions.
The midnight celebration meant keeping children up unusually late, with the promise of an early opening of presents afterwards. More significantly, the appeal of midnight was a stronger engagement with the usual Biblical readings for the service.
Participants identify with the narrative of shepherds and angels, the holy family in the stable, and the miracle of light in the midst of darkness. As Pope Francis expressed it in his sermon for midnight mass at St Peter’s Rome in 2013:
In this night, as the spirit of darkness enfolds the world, there takes place anew the event which always amazes and surprises us: the people who walk see a great light.
In the last few years, a new phenomenon has emerged: the displacement of Christmas attendance from Christmas Day to Christmas Eve. A hugely popular trend has been the celebration of church services directed at children or the celebration of Christmas masses on the afternoon of Christmas Eve.
Crib services can tell the story of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to generations of children who may know nothing of it, and music and liturgy can be adapted to 21st-century sights, sounds and movements. The impact of such services is felt even in the way church attendance is counted. The Church of England, for example, now reports attendance on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – 50 years ago it merely counted the number of Christmas Day communicants.
None of this explains why large numbers of people who do not normally attend church continue to go there to celebrate Christmas. Perhaps the decoupling of the spiritual experience of Christmas church services from the heavy temporal demands of Christmas Day represents the heartfelt desire to find some deeper meaning in life beyond the crass commercialism of the retail transactions that have overtaken the ancient ritual of gift-giving.
Or perhaps the churches, in a desperate search to reverse the slide in attendance and the loss of relevance, have merely surrendered Christmas Day to the heathen.
This article is part of The Conversation’s End of Year series.