Friends, family, food, and giving – the real meaning of Christmas revealed

16 December, 2016

'Spending time with family' was selected by the most people as an important aspect of Christmas
‘Spending time with family’ was selected by the most people as an important aspect of Christmas

Spending time with family, giving presents, and food and drink: these three things define Christmas for most people in Britain, according to new research by YouGov commissioned by the British Humanist Association (BHA). The research showed that 91% of the British population celebrate Christmas in some shape or form, but that only 1 in 5 Brits (22%) said that celebrating the birth of Christ makes Christmas an important time, suggesting that Christmas has become a fundamentally secular festival for most.

The survey asked people for which, if any, of twelve possible reasons Christmas is important to them and people could select as many reasons as they wished. Attending a religious service was the least selected response (15%) and celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ was the second-least selected (22%). This is compared with 76% who identified Christmas with spending time with family and 63% who said giving presents to friends and/or family was important.

In a rebuke to those who claim that a non-religious Christmas is a more selfish one, more people (63%) said that giving presents was important to them, compared to receiving them (39%), and it was the intangible ‘Spending time with family’ that topped the whole list.

When asked what makes Christmas an important time of the year, the responses were:

Spending time with family (76%)
Giving presents to friends/family (63%)
Eating Christmas food and/ or drinking Christmas drinks (57%)
Putting up Christmas lights and decorations (48%)
Being cosy indoors during the cold Christmas weather (46%)
Upholding family Christmas traditions (40%)
Receiving presents from friends/ family (39%)
Spending time with friends (38%)
Watching Christmas television (36%)
Having time off work to relax (32%)
Celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ (22%)
Attending a religious service(s) (15%)
Other (2%)
Don’t know (0%)
Not applicable nothing in particular makes Christmas an important time of year to me (2%)

Responding to the results, BHA President Shappi Khorsandi said,

‘Far from being a Christian festival under threat, Christmas is a much-loved time of year appreciated by people from all walks of life. Around this time of year, we tend to hear complaints in the press that Christmas is coming under attack, but there’s no evidence of this. The things that make this time of year special – family, friends, presents, food and drink, and being together – are just as important to us all as they’ve ever been.’

BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson added

‘Humans across Europe have gathered together at the darkest and coldest time of the year to feast and appreciate each other’s company in the warm since long before Christianity. Sometimes the charge is levelled at humanists that to celebrate Christmas is hypocritical, but this research puts that myth to bed. For an overwhelming majority of people in Britain, this time of year has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with celebrating the life we have with the people we love.’


For media enquiries, please contact Pavan Dhaliwal on or 07738 435 059.

Christmas was first celebrated in Europe as a major festival during the Early Middle Ages. It was preceded by pagan winter festivals such as Saturnalia and Yule. Many of the most popular aspects of modern Christmas, such as Christmas trees, Christmas decorations, Mistletoe, and Santa Claus, have pagan origins.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 2022 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 1st-2nd December 2016.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

Download the full dataset here:

The British Humanist Association (BHA) is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity.