Byline: David Williamson
PEOPLE in Wales are the least likely in Great Britain to believe that Jesus Christ was born to a virgin called Mary, new research suggests.
Anationwide survey found four out of 10 believed this key element of the Christmas story was fiction, compared to 32% who said it was historically accurate.
Just 30% believed angels visited shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus, with 42% claiming this was invented - significantly higher than the nationwide figure of 32%.
But despite scepticism about historical aspects of the story, 54% agreed with the statement: "The birth of Jesus is significant to me personally."
This result was described by historians and senior church figures as continued proof that religion played a key role in the lives of Welsh people.
In contrast, 44% of Scots believe in the Virgin Birth, with 40% happy to accept the Bible's account of the angels visiting the shepherds.
Welsh people seemed more willing to accept non-supernatural aspects of the Nativity. Nearly six out of 10 accepted that Jesus had been born in Bethlehem, and just 21% believed King Herod's order to kill infant boys in his efforts to kill Jesus was fictional.
An overwhelming 75% said the birth of Jesus remained significant "culturally" and 44% planned to attend a Christmas church service this year. But 43% said they would not celebrate Christmas as a religious festival.
Swansea-based cultural historian Peter Stead said he was not surprised that a strong attachment to the Christmas narrative continues in modern Wales, despite religious doubts.
He said: "The very powerful poignant Christmas story is really still part of us."
He said that during past economic depressions evangelical revivals had broken out, adding: "It will be very interesting to see if we don't have something like that this time around. There might be another chapter to go."
George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, said the Christmas story remained important to many people who are not regular churchgoers.
He said: "It is not barren ground and furthermore there is a great deal of sympathy for the Christian faith."
It was more important, he argued, that people believed in the resurrection rather than in the Virgin Birth but acknowledged the difficulty of believing in the miracle.
Paul Woolley, director of the theology think-tank Theos, said: "This research demonstrates that the people of Wales and the south-west are less likely to believe in the historical accuracy of the Christmas story than people elsewhere in the UK, but the extent of religious belief will still surprise some. …