by Chris Tobin
From the time of European colonisation through much of the 20th century the Christian story was the central theme of Christmas for most New Zealanders.
That is no longer the case.
Statistics from the 2018 census suggest the traditional Christian aspect of Christmas with the nativity scene has become an irrelevance, or is now dead, for the majority of New Zealanders, and that the annual event is more about the chubby man in the red suit, family gatherings and a few days off work.
The 2018 census showed 2.26million New Zealanders held no religious belief, making them the largest “belief” group in the country while the number of Christians across all denominations dropped from 47.65% of New Zealanders in the 2013 census to 37.31%, down to about 1.8 million people.
It was the first time “no religion” people overtook the number of professed Christians in a New Zealand census.
The number more than doubled since the 2001 census when 1.02million New Zealanders said they had no religion.
Despite what the statistical information conveyed, the chairman of the Timaru Christian Ministers Association, and Timaru St John’s Anglican vicar Joshua Taylor said the Christian story had relevance to non-believers as well.
As a Christian, Rev Taylor believed the birth of Jesus was the birth of the son of God, which people could accept or reject, but he said the child was known also as the prince of peace.
“We need peace in the world more than ever and anyone can lead into that message. It’s about peace in our families and neighbourhoods and in a broader sense the world.”
He was not concerned by the census statistics.
“In the past people went to church because they felt it was the right thing to do. People who worship now do so because they want to.”
Rev Taylor said the other Christmas story – buying presents etc – was about consumerism.
“It makes people feel happy and fulfilled but by Boxing Day it’s worn off.”
As to the suggestion that religion sparked violence and wars, Rev Taylor said the problem was that people, by nature, were violent.
“True religion is about love your neighbour. It’s not violent.”
He considered the Christmas story of a husband, wife and baby fleeing the threat of death from a tyrannical king was still relevant.
“There were powerful kings and rulers as we have today who were divisive and violent. You have refugees fleeing from it and a mother, father and child. It’s a very human story.
“We love Christmas .. there’s a lot of joy about it.”