The experience of life, of death, of time, of celebration—e.g., Christmas—is decidedly different for the religious man compared to the secular man. Mircea Eliade, in his book The Sacred and the Profane, offers four points of difference here (pp. 202-206).
The religious man believes that there is an absolute reality, the sacred, transcending but manifesting itself in this world and making it real. Second, he not only believes that life has a sacred origin but also that persons can only be fulfilled to the extent that they are genuinely religious, i.e., in contact with the sacred. Third, he believes that the history of this world and of his own life involves the history of God’s creative and providential action. Fourthly, he believes that he is called to reactualize sacred history, to imitate the divine behavior, in order to keep himself close to the divine.
In contrast, the secular man distances himself from and opposes each of these fundamental attitudes. First, he refuses transcendence, thereby “leveling” reality and making all things relative, without anchor. Second, he regards himself as the sole actor in history; he makes himself, without any model outside the human condition. Thus he experiences the idea of the transcendent and the sacred as a threat and an obstacle to his power and freedom. He must then desacralize himself and the world completely in order to preserve his autonomy. Third, therefore, secular man has a bit of the sadness of tragedy about him; he is formed only by opposing his own heritage. He must attempt to empty himself of all religion and trans-human meaning which has come down to him in his tradition. He must define himself in this negative way. And yet, fourth, this means that he cannot help preserving some vestiges of the behavior of religious man—now emptied of religious meaning. As Eliade says, “He forms himself by a series of denials and refusals, but he continues to be haunted by the realities that he has refused and denied.”
Thus the secular man may still “celebrate” Christmas, New Year’s, a marriage, a birth, etc., but emptied of the real meaning behind them. Again, as Eliade says, “Strictly speaking, the great majority of irreligious men are not liberated from religious behavior, from theologies and mythologies. They sometimes stagger under a whole magico-religious paraphernalia, which, however, has degenerated to the point of caricature and hence is hard to recognize it for what it is.”
This is what I am reminded of when I see a million people gathered in Times Square for New Year’s, or when I see a predominance of “Christmas” decorations in the mode of snowmen, Charlie Brown characters, reindeer, polar bears, chipmunks, etc., etc. The joyful, celebratory aspect is implied in all this, but the reason why is lost and obscured. The simple manger scene tells the real story.