Josh Soto will spend Christmas Day with his girlfriend and her family and exchange a few gifts.
But the 28-year-old Omahan won't attend a church service, placing him with a large number of Americans who don't consider Christmas a religious holiday. Instead, for this group, Christmas has become about family, friends and gifts, according to a new poll whose results were released Wednesday.
Half the people who responded to the Pew Research Center poll said they considered Christmas a religious holiday, even though nearly three-quarters said they believed that Jesus was born to a virgin. One-third said they viewed Christmas as a cultural celebration.
And Soto reflects a striking generational divide in the poll: While two-thirds of people age 65 and older consider Christmas religious, 40 percent of adults under age 30 agree.
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 that is expected to be higher among the younger generations.
Soto, who works at a music store and plays bass in a local rock band, was raised Catholic. He said he still holds the values he learned from his faith, such as compassion toward others.
But after high school, he began feeling he didn't need organized religion to help him lead a good life, he said.
“I didn't feel uplifted by it.”
Stephen Lahey, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said many young people these days consider themselves spiritual but not religious. They might believe in God or another “force outside themselves,” but they don't sit in the pews on Sunday, he said.
Clergy are wrestling with how to draw those people to church, he said.
The Pew Center said church attendance will be higher at Christmas than at other times of the year. But while 69 percent of respondents said they attended Christmas worship services as children, 54 percent were planning to do so as adults this year. By contrast, 86 percent said they would gather with extended family or friends and would exchange gifts.
Local religious leaders say they realize that Christmas has become more secularized, but they also know that for many it remains a deeply religious holiday.
The Rev. Jane Florence of Omaha's First United Methodist Church said the secularization of Christmas has made some people even more passionate about the religious aspect.
Shev Sayed, 19, who attends Omaha's King of Kings Lutheran Church, said that's where he'll be on Christmas Eve, worshipping with hundreds of other faithful.
He said Christmas is a powerful reminder that “God came to be with us through Jesus.”
Not surprisingly, the survey found that Christians who more closely identify with a faith are more likely to view Christmas as religious. More than 80 percent of white evangelicals considered the holiday religious, compared with 66 percent of white Catholics and 60 percent of black Protestants.
Fifty-six percent of white Protestants from mainline denominations considered the celebration more religious than cultural.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
A sampling of sentiment
We took to Facebook and Twitter to ask readers what Christmas means to them.
Suzie Gronewold: Still a Holy day, but I honestly look forward to getting together with family with greater anticipation than going to church.
Chris Scheel: It's a paid day off, and much appreciated!
Tony Oliveto: Good food, good family time, good presents, funny gift tags, bad sweaters, and driving around to look at lights :)
Paulissa Kipp: I don't celebrate it as a “Christian”-only celebration but rather as a celebration of abundance, joy and love. I enjoy the traditional carols, the secular songs, the yule traditions from around the world, Kwanzaa, etc.
Shannon Kueny Gilbride: We think of it as a religious celebration. The coming of Christ as a child, foretelling of his coming again someday. The trappings of the season are a bonus!
Chime in and see what others said at facebook.com/worldherald