Is Christmas Still a Religious Holiday in America?

Nearly nine in ten Americans will celebrate Christmas this year, but a majority say the holiday is only “somewhat” or “not too” religious for them. In recent years, fewer Americans consider Christmas a “strongly religious” holiday.

Less than half of Americans who celebrate Christmas (43 percent) still consider it a “strongly religious” holiday, according to a new study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). By contrast, 29 percent of those celebrating Christmas call it “somewhat religious,” and 27 percent describe it as “not too religious.”

Since 2010, the number of Americans celebrating Christmas as a non-religious holiday has shot up quickly. In 2010, a majority of Americans celebrating the holiday (51 percent) described it as “strongly religious,” while fewer than one in five (17 percent) said it was “not too religious.”

Despite this recent shift, Americans report that the levels of religion in Christmas celebrations today are similar to their experiences growing up. Forty percent describe their family’s Christmas celebrations growing up as strongly religious, while 31 percent say they were somewhat religious, and 27 percent report them as being not too religious.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Republicans and Democrats celebrate Christmas in different ways — although they have not always been as divided on this. A strong majority of Republicans who celebrate Christmas (60 percent) described the holiday as strongly religious, while only 32 percent of Christmas-celebrating Democrats agreed. On the flip side, more Democrats (36 percent) than Republicans (14 percent) described Christmas as not too religious.

In 2005, however, Democrats who celebrated Christmas did so more religiously, while the Republican percentage has remained the same. In that year, almost half (46 percent) of Democrats who celebrated Christmas called it a strongly religious holiday.

Even among Christians, the religiosity of Christmas celebrations differs by denomination. While nearly three quarters of white evangelical Protestants (74 percent) call the holiday strongly religious, only half of Catholics (51 percent) and non-white Protestants (49 percent) call Christmas strongly religious. Only 39 percent of white mainline Protestants agree.

Interestingly, a full 10 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans who celebrate Christmas say it is strongly religious for them, while 64 percent say their celebrations are not too religious.

Younger Americans (ages 18 to 29) are also more likely than older Americans (65 and older) to celebrate Christmas culturally, as opposed to religiously. While a majority of seniors (52 percent) describe their Christmas celebrations as strongly religious, only 30 percent of young people agree. Twice as many young adults (36 percent) as seniors (17 percent) say the holiday is not too religious for them.

The so-called “war on Christmas” is even more polarizing.

The country is about evenly divided over whether it is more appropriate for stores and businesses to greet customers with “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings” rather than “Merry Christmas,” out of respect for people with differing faiths. Forty-seven percent said Americans should opt for the politically correct option, while 46 percent preferred “Merry Christmas.”

The disagreement falls mostly along partisan lines. More Democrats (66 percent) than Republicans (28 percent) opt for “Happy Holidays,” while more Republicans (67 percent) than Democrats (30 percent) favor “Merry Christmas.” Independents actually slightly favor “Merry Christmas” (48 percent) over the politically correct option (44 percent).

As with the religiosity of Christmas, the preference for a December greeting splits along denominational lines. Most white evangelical Protestants (65 percent) and Catholics (58 percent) would have stores use “Merry Christmas,” while most non-white Protestants (56 percent) and religiously unaffiliated Americans (58 percent) favor the politically correct options. White mainline Protestants are evenly divided between “Merry Christmas” (48 percent) and “Happy Holidays” (46 percent).

The young (67 percent) prefer the politically correct option, while most seniors (54 percent) say stores should use “Merry Christmas!”

Christmas was arguably a cultural holiday before it was Christian. Romans celebrated the winter solstice (and the birth of Sol Invictus) on December 25, and some scholars argue that Christians adopted the date for that reason. Ancient texts place Jesus’ birth at different times. Accounts also differ on when exactly the Magi from the East came to adore Jesus, and when the shepherds arrived as well.

The significance of Jesus’ birth is not the date, however, but the coming of God into human flesh. Jesus is identified as the Second Person of the Trinity, fully God with the Father, and as the Word of God through whom all creation was made. His birth represents the reunion of God and Man, separated in the Genesis account at the first sin, also known as The Fall.

Every other human being suffers the taint of sin and separation from God, but Jesus had neither of these things. Born of a virgin, He is the sinless savor who alone could reunite mankind with God and enable eternal life in Heaven.

Jesus proved his divinity through miracles, by the declaration of God that Jesus was His son at Jesus’ baptism, and by rising from the dead. Easter, the date celebrating His resurrection, carries about equal religious significance.

In many denominations, Christmas is preceded by a season called Advent — a period of four weeks before December 25 associated with fasting and waiting for the birth (and Second Coming) of Christ. According to PRRI, 4 percent of Americans reported celebrating Advent.

Besides this religious celebration, Americans celebrate Christmas in a plethora of cultural ways, many of which are based in the religious interpretation.

Christmas is the season for gift-giving, and the representation of this is Santa Claus. The association of the holiday with the giving of gifts likely came from the account of the Magi giving Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. From this root, other major cultural milestones like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol further enshrined the connection between Christmas and generosity.

Because of this cultural trend, however, stores across the country associate the Christmas season with a spike in business. This commercialization is largely responsible for Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, becoming a massive spending spree. Even in other countries without Thanksgiving, stores offer sales on Black Friday.

This commercialization strikes many Christians as an insult to the holiday, and it is especially jarring to those who celebrate Advent as a period of waiting and expectation — rather than buying and celebrating.

Besides this, the religious and cultural meanings of Christmas largely build upon one another. Americans can pick and choose how religious they want the holiday to be — which is what makes the concern about “Merry Christmas” being religiously offensive seem ridiculous to many Americans.

But even while 89 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas in one way or another, PRRI reported that 3 percent say they celebrate Hanukkah, 3 percent say winter solstice, one percent say Kwanzaa, and four percent that they do not celebrate any holiday in December.

Even Christians who have close Jewish friends or have friends who are offended by Christmas will make sure not to greet them with “Merry Christmas!” The difficulty arises when total strangers greet each other: some Americans are offended by “Happy Holidays” merely because it isn’t “Merry Christmas.” Perhaps learning not to take offense at greetings would help both sides relax.

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, it is important to realize that most Americans who celebrate it do not consider it primarily a religious holiday. For most, it is a cultural holiday with “some” or “not too many” Christian elements.

Celebrating Christmas does not necessarily mean honoring Jesus Christ as the Son of God — although many Americans do indeed believe this. It is possible to appreciate the joy and giving of Christmas without taking offense at the Christian message behind it.