Combatants in the annual “War on Christmas” have some new data to chew on, thanks to a survey released this week by the Pew Research Center.
While many doubt that Christmas is embattled, as some conservative pundits contend, the new study does suggest American attitudes are changing.
The Pew study, based on interviews conducted in recent weeks with 1,503 adults, found that while a vast majority of Americans still celebrate Christmas, most find the religious elements of the holiday are emphasized less than in the past — and few of them care about that change.
Like much else in the United States, a strong partisan divide runs through the survey results, with responses from Republicans seeming to place an emphasis on religion and those from Democrats on secularism.
But the data complicate efforts to portray Christmas as either in mortal danger or in no trouble at all, a central issue in a yearslong debate over whether Christmas in America respects Christianity or has been undermined by liberalism.
Who celebrates, and how
Ninety percent of Americans celebrate Christmas in some form, a figure that has “hardly budged at all” since its survey in 2013, the center said.
Fifty-six percent of Americans believe that the religious elements of Christmas are emphasized less now than they were in the past, but only 32 percent of Americans say that development bothers them either “a lot” or “some,” according to the study.
In 2017, 55 percent of Americans said they celebrated Christmas as a religious holiday, including 46 percent who saw it primarily as a religious holiday and 9 percent who said it was both religious and cultural. Thirty-three percent celebrated it as primarily a cultural holiday, the study said.
Four years ago, 59 percent of Americans said they celebrated Christmas as a religious holiday, including 51 percent who said it was primarily religious for them and 7 percent who treated it as both religious and cultural. At the time, 32 percent said they celebrated it primarily as a cultural holiday.
The changes in attitudes are reflected in how people said they planned to spend their time during Christmas.
In 2013, 86 percent of celebrants said they would spend Christmas Eve or Christmas Day with loved ones, and 54 percent said they would attend a religious service. That declined in 2017 to 82 percent who said they would spend the holiday with family or friends and 51 percent who said they planned to attend a religious service.
The Bible story
The most seismic change captured by the survey, from a theological standpoint, may be the declining number of people who said they believed the biblical story of Christmas accurately reflected historical events.
The survey asked respondents about their belief in four parts of the biblical Christmas story: that an angel heralded the birth of Jesus; that it was a virgin birth; that wise men were guided to baby Jesus by a star; and that he was placed in a manger.
Only 57 percent of Americans believe in all four, down from 65 percent in 2014. There were two factors that contributed to the trend, researchers said. One was that atheists and the religiously unaffiliated appeared even less likely now than in the past to believe the story of Jesus’ birth. The second was “a small but significant decline” of roughly 5 percent “in the share of Christians who believe in the Christmas narrative contained in the Bible.”
President Trump has turned the phrase “Merry Christmas” into a political battle cry, claiming that the greeting is being drummed out of public life by politically correct alternatives like “Happy Holidays” and the seasonal design choices of corporations like Starbucks.
He has often told supporters that under his presidency “we will be saying Merry Christmas again.” But most Americans don’t really care, according to the survey results.
Fifty-two percent said it did not matter to them what kind of holiday greeting was used by people or businesses, and only 32 percent said they prefer to be greeted with “Merry Christmas.”
Answers to that question differed along party lines. Roughly half of Republicans prefer to hear “Merry Christmas,” compared with 19 percent of Democrats. Sixty-one percent of Democrats said they don’t care what holiday greeting people use, while only 38 percent of Republicans agreed.
There has also been a move toward the secular on the question of whether religiously themed holiday displays, like Nativity scenes, can be displayed on public property, like town halls and public schools.
Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union oppose such displays, calling them a violation of the separation of church and state, but two-thirds of Americans say they do not see a problem with them, according to the poll results.
But the number of respondents who said Christian displays should be allowed on their own, without symbols of other religions, like a Menorah, declined by 7 percentage points since 2013, to 37 percent from 44. The number of Americans who oppose religious displays on public property has grown to 26 percent from 20 percent in the same time period, the study said.