‘Tis the season for some to take offense when a store clerk says “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas,” or when a coffee chain converts to plain red cups for the holiday. The “war on Christmas” trope seems to surface with Black Friday sales, but who is actually at war?
It is easy to imagine saying “merry Christmas” as another cudgel in the culture wars between Christians and the irreligious. The actual story, however, is much more nuanced. Public Religion Research Institute asked a nationally representative sample of Americans whether retailers should greet their customers with “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings” — rather than “merry Christmas” — “out of respect for people of different faiths.” Although a slim majority of those with a preference want retailers to say “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings,” we found that preference depends on your level of tension with the culture where you live. To explore these cultural tensions, we analyzed the PRRI data jointly with the 2010 Religion Census results.
According to the findings, evangelicals, on average, strongly favor “merry Christmas” and seculars prefer “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings.” But the war on Christmas is not simply a religious divide. One of the more surprising findings is that the Bible-Belt South does not show the weakest preference for “happy holidays” (54 percent). That distinction belongs to the Midwest (44 percent). One reason for the difference is African-Americans (20 percent of the South in this sample), who strongly prefer “happy holidays” despite their high levels of religiosity.
Preferences, not surprisingly, are filtered through a political lens, with Republicans opposing “happy holidays” at the strongest rates and most consistently across the nation. Republican responses probably reflect opposition to political correctness as much as (and perhaps more so than) spiritual sympathies. Republicans as a whole (30 percent) outpace even evangelical Republicans (38 percent) in their anemic support for saying “happy holidays.”1
Since Christmas is such a public holiday — people put out displays and pass out cookies, and they feel compelled to wish people some version of merriment — it is no surprise that reactions to it vary across communities. Non-Christians and the nonreligious in states with large white Christian populations are the most likely groups to urge stores to adopt a “happy holidays” regimen. Support for “happy holidays,” however, drops dramatically for secular citizens in largely nonreligious states like Oregon. In these areas, the social stakes are low — Christmas is not an entre to conversations about what church you attend, but more about presents, ugly sweaters and Santa. In such nonreligious states, seculars’ support for “happy holidays” is the same as it is among evangelicals nationwide (48 percent).
The next time you hear or read a media dispatch about the war on Christmas, such as Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s threat to slap the next person who says “happy holidays” to him, realize that it does not reflect a national war but rather local skirmishes. There is no orchestrated war against saying “merry Christmas,” but it is important to recognize that Christmas can be a potent symbol that reflects intergroup tensions and signals exclusion to some Americans.