Christmas is the only religious holiday officially recognized by the U.S. government. Federal employees get the day off, or are compensated extra for having to work. Does that make America a Christian nation?
Not really. Sure, 78 percent of Americans describe themselves as Christians, but many don't attend church regularly or read a Bible.
Then there's the nearly 5 percent of Americans who are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or another religion; the 4 percent who are atheist or agnostic; and the 12 percent described by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life as "nothing in particular."
This time of the year, it doesn't seem to matter. People of all religious persuasions, or none at all, get caught up in the commercial aspects of Christmas - the purchase and exchanging of gifts, enjoying "Jingle Bells," "White Christmas," and other secular songs of the season, attending holiday parties, and stuffing themselves with roasted turkey or other traditional fare.
Many families celebrate the day without ever considering what they are supposed to be celebrating. To synopsize the Books of Mark, Luke, and Matthew: On this day about 2,000 years ago, a baby was born who was the savior of mankind long promised by God. The fulfillment of that promise is available to anyone who professes his belief in it.
There's more to the story, of course, a recounting of how the baby Jesus grew up and spread the good news, was betrayed by a member of his trusted elite, and allowed himself to be beaten, humiliated, and nailed to a cross to die as the price he was destined to pay to complete the covenant with God.
It's a fantastic story - in fact, an unbelievable one without faith.
For some, it is this faith that lies at the root of the Christmas story that allows the holiday to transcend not only religious affiliation, but also the commercialism that has shoppers lined up outside stores on a Thanksgiving night to buy the latest electronics or toy to give away weeks later as a present.
People who don't know the Christmas story from an Aesop's fable know what it means to have faith - if not faith in God, faith in themselves, their parents, their favorite sports team - or maybe their country, which for more than 200 years has always seemed to overcome whatever difficulty it faced.
Speaking of faith, one of the more troubling aspects of the past election was the pessimism exuded by some candidates' campaigns. To hear them tell it, America had better hunker down and prepare for soup lines because it has already mortgaged its children's future to pay current debts and this nation will never see the likes of prosperity again.
Where was their faith?
It is certainly true that, coming out of one of the worst recessions the country has ever had, the nation continues to struggle with job creation. It's true that members of Congress for the past two years seemed more concerned with taking stances to move the 2012 presidential election in one direction or another than cooperating to make the compromises needed to steer a more sensible fiscal course. But, believe it or not, this land has been in worst predicaments.
America has experienced prosperity after recessions and depressions, including the Great Depression. It has seen its economy grow after wars that may not have lasted as long as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, but were more costly in terms of lives lost. It has seen vast improvements in an education system that didn't grasp how much it needed to change until the Russians put something called Sputnik in Earth orbit.
Hard work led to those improvements. But before the hard work could begin, people had to have faith that the job could be accomplished - by them.
Faith is believing in what seems impossible. It's believing something will occur when there's little or no evidence that it will. It's believing that what may seem beyond the ability of mere humans can happen. Such belief is the essence of Christmas. But knowing faith has great power is worth celebrating anytime