Compared to other Americans, white evangelical Protestants most likely to celebrate Christmas as a strongly religious holiday; plan to spend more on gifts
WASHINGTON – As everyone from pundits to late-night comedians discuss the so-called “War on Christmas,” nearly half (49 percent) of Americans agree that stores and businesses should, out of respect for people of different faiths, greet their customers with “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings” instead of “merry Christmas,” a new survey finds. While a sizable minority (43 percent) currently prefer the specifically religious greeting, support for the more secular holiday greetings is up slightly since December 2010, when 44 percent preferred that businesses use the less religious greetings.
White evangelical Protestants are significantly more likely than other religious groups to say stores should use “merry Christmas” instead of “happy holidays,” while white mainline Protestants and Catholics are more divided, finds the December PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey, conducted by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service. Sixty-two percent of white evangelical Protestants prefer that businesses use the more religious greeting, compared to only 46 percent of white mainline Protestants and 44 percent of Catholics who agree. However, majorities of minority Protestants (55 percent) and the religiously unaffiliated (58 percent), as well as 43 percent of white mainline Protestants and 50 percent of Catholics, say stores should use the more generic greeting.
“Americans seem to be turning a corner on the appropriateness of more inclusive holiday greetings during December,” said Dr. Robert P. Jones, PRRI CEO. “Today, more Americans than not say they prefer businesses to greet customers with ‘happy holidays’ rather than ‘merry Christmas’ out of respect for the diversity of holidays being celebrated in December, such as Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, winter solstice, and others.”
Among Americans celebrating Christmas this year, most will celebrate it as a religious holiday (42 percent strongly religious; 31 percent somewhat religious). More than a quarter of Americans (26 percent), however, will celebrate Christmas this year largely as a non-religious holiday.
The new survey finds that white evangelical Protestants are the most likely group of Americans to be celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday, with 71 percent planning to observe the holiday as a strongly religious one. Compared to other Americans celebrating Christmas this year, white evangelical Protestants are also more likely to attend religious services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (77 percent vs. 59 percent), and much more likely to read the Christmas story from the Bible as a part of their holiday observance (68 percent vs. 36 percent).
White evangelicals are not just celebrating Christmas with more religious traditions; the survey finds that they are also likely to spend more money than other Americans. Based on rough estimates of spending plans this holiday season, white evangelical Protestants estimate an average personal spending of $1,153 on Christmas and holiday gifts this year, compared to an estimated average personal spending of $914 by Americans overall.
The survey also finds that less than half (49 percent) of Americans say they believe the story of Christmas—the virgin birth, the angelic proclamation to the shepherds, the star of Bethlehem, and the wise men from the East—is historically accurate, compared to 4-in-10 (40 percent) who say it is a theological story to affirm faith in Jesus Christ. Roughly 1-in-10 (11 percent) Americans say they are not sure. Compared to a decade ago, significantly fewer Americans report believing that the story of Christmas is historically accurate. In 2004, two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans reported believing that the Christmas story was historically accurate, compared to only 24 percent who said it was a theological story written to inspire faith. Religiously unaffiliated Americans and young adults are the least likely to believe the story is historically accurate.
Among the findings:
The Battle Lines in the “War on Christmas”: Political and Generational
The political divisions are stark. Roughly 6-in-10 (61 percent) Republicans favor using “merry Christmas” instead of “happy holidays,” while nearly as many (58 percent) Democrats say the opposite.
There is also a wide gulf of opinion among the youngest and oldest Americans. Nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of young adults (ages 18-29) support stores and businesses using a non-religious greeting, a view shared by fewer than 4-in-10 (39 percent) of American seniors (ages 65 and older).
Christmas: A religious holiday for most, but not all, Americans
In December, 84 percent of Americans report that they celebrate Christmas and no other holidays; 6 percent celebrate Christmas along with some other holiday such as Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or winter solstice; 6 percent celebrate some other holiday but not Christmas; and 5 percent say they do not celebrate any holidays in December.
Among Americans celebrating Christmas this year, most will celebrate it as a strongly religious (42 percent) or somewhat religious (31 percent) holiday. But more than one-quarter (26 percent) of Americans celebrating Christmas this year will do so largely as a non-religious holiday.
- There are strong religious differences in how Americans celebrate Christmas. Among those who say they will celebrate Christmas, white evangelical Protestants (71 percent) are more likely than minority Protestants (54 percent), Catholics (49 percent), white mainline Protestants (38 percent) or the religiously unaffiliated (6 percent) to report that they celebrate Christmas as a strongly religious holiday.
- Seniors are nearly twice as likely as young adults to say they will be celebrating Christmas as a strongly religious holiday (51 percent vs. 26 percent).
- Overall, Americans are as likely to say they currently celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday as they did as a child. Similar numbers of Americans say they grew up celebrating Christmas as a strongly religious (39 percent), somewhat religious (31 percent), or not too religious holiday (26 percent).
The most popular activity among those celebrating Christmas is watching Christmas movies such as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “A Christmas Story.” Nearly 8-in-10 (79 percent) report that their family watches Christmas movies during the holiday. Nearly 6-in-10 (59 percent) say they will attend religious services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Fewer of those celebrating Christmas will read the Christmas story from the Bible (36 percent) or read the story, “Twas the Night before Christmas” (36 percent).
- Among those celebrating Christmas, white evangelical Protestants (68 percent) and minority Protestants (57 percent) are much more likely than white mainline Protestants (27 percent) or Catholics (28 percent) to report reading the Christmas story from the Bible.
Giving Gifts and Giving Back: Christmas and Holiday Spending & Charity
Overall, about 1-in-10 (12 percent) Americans report that they will spend less than $100 on holiday gifts this year. Nearly half the country will limit their spending to between $100 and $499 (29 percent) or between $500 and $999 (20 percent). One-quarter of the public report that they will spend at least $1,000, including 15 percent who anticipate spending between $1,000 and $1,999 and 10 percent who are planning on spending more than $2,000.
Most Americans (66 percent) report that they are planning on paying off their Christmas and holiday bills in about a month. Twelve percent say they will take one or two months to pay off their bills, while nearly 1-in-10 (9 percent) say they will take at least three months to pay off their holiday debts. About 1-in-10 (12 percent) refuse to answer this question or say they do not know how long it will take to pay off their holiday bills.
Although the Christmas holiday season is known to be stressful time of year, most Americans report they do not feel stressed about holiday spending. Six-in-ten (60 percent) Americans say they do not feel stressed about their spending, while 29 percent report feeling a little stress, and only 10 percent report feeling a lot of stress.
- Levels of stress vary considerably by income level and spending amount. Nearly half (49 percent) of those with annual incomes of under $30,000 a year report feeling at least a little stress, compared to 23 percent of those with annual incomes of more than $100,000.
More than one-third (34 percent) of Americans celebrating Christmas report that they shopped for gifts at retail stores on Black Friday.
- Americans most likely to shop on Black Friday include those making between $30,000 and $50,000 a year (47 percent), young adults (50 percent), and black Americans (53 percent).
Nearly 8-in-10 (77 percent) Americans celebrating Christmas report that they give to charity or volunteer to help those less fortunate as part of their holiday celebration, including 85 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 84 percent of white mainline Protestants, 77 percent of minority Protestants, 77 percent of Catholics, and 64 percent of the religiously unaffiliated.
The Historical Accuracy of the Christmas Story
Nearly half (49 percent) of Americans say they believe the story of Christmas – that is, the virgin birth, the angelic proclamation to the shepherds, the star of Bethlehem, and the wise men from the East – is historically accurate. By contrast, 4-in-10 (40 percent) say it is a theological story to affirm faith in Jesus Christ. Roughly 1-in-10 (11 percent) Americans say they are not sure.
- A majority of every major religious group affirms the story of Christmas to be historically accurate, although there are notable differences in degree. Eight-in-ten (80 percent) white evangelical Protestants agree that the Christmas story is historically accurate, as do 6-in-10 (62 percent) minority Protestants, a majority (56 percent) of white mainline Protestants and a slim majority of Catholics (51 percent). Nearly 7-in-10 (68 percent) religiously unaffiliated Americans disagree, saying it is a theological story designed to affirm faith in Jesus Christ.
- Young adults (42 percent) are less likely to believe the story of Christmas is historically accurate than seniors (50 percent) or those ages 50 to 64 (56 percent).
The survey was designed and conducted by Public Religion Research Institute. Results of the survey were based on bilingual (Spanish and English) RDD telephone interviews conducted between December 4, 2013, and December 12, 2013, by professional interviewers under the direction of Social Science Research Solutions (SSRS). Interviews were conducted among a random sample of 1,056 adults 18 years of age or older in the continental United States (433 respondents were interviewed on a cell phone). The margin of error for the survey is +/- 3.1 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence.
The topline questionnaire can be found online here:
 Princeton Survey Research Associates/Newsweek Poll, December 2004.