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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Christmas wins

Religion | The traditional holiday is gaining increasing favor in American culture

Issue: "Babies are back," Jan. 29, 2011

Americans last month found that Walmart's "Holiday Shop" is now a "Christmas Shop" and the "Family Trees" at Lowe's are once again Christmas trees. Advertising Age reported, "In The War on Christmas, Christmas is winning," with store ads and clerks dropping "Happy Holidays" and once again saying "Merry Christmas." Nine out of 10 Americans celebrate Christmas, according to a survey conducted by LifeWay Research.

Christians also apparently won last month's New York/New Jersey billboard war. The American Atheists organization had a billboard ad near the New Jersey entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel that showed a manger scene and stated, "You KNOW it's a myth." In response, the Catholic League rented a billboard at the New York end of the tunnel proclaiming, "You Know It's Real." Five days before Christmas the atheist ad gave way to one from the Times Square Church that stated "God Is"-with "Merciful," "Good," and "Aware of Your Struggle" in the background.

But statistical analysis shows a more nuanced picture. According to LifeWay, more than three-fourths of Americans agree that Jesus "is the reason for the Christmas season," but almost all recognize that "many" of their favorite holiday traditions "have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus Christ." Americans are more likely to encourage belief in Santa Claus (at 38 percent) than to read or tell the story of Jesus' birth (28 percent) at Christmastime. Christians celebrate Christmas at the highest rate (97 percent) and also encourage belief in Santa at a higher rate (42 percent) than agnostics (27 percent) or atheists (18 percent).

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Overall, according to a Rasmussen study, nearly two in three Americans honor Christmas as "a religious holiday," while 28 percent celebrate it as a secular holiday. Rasmussen also showed few Americans taking offense at a "Merry Christmas" greeting; 76 percent support permitting religious Christmas displays on public lands and 83 percent favor celebrating religious holidays in public schools.

African-Americans are more likely than whites to enjoy a Christmas with some religious elements, and Republi­cans more likely than Democrats. A Religion News Service study revealed that half of Republicans say they read the biblical birth narrative, compared to 34 percent of Democrats. Most likely to read the biblical story are white evangelicals (three in four) and black Protestants (two in three). White mainline Protestants are at 37 percent and Catholics at 26 percent.

The RNS study also showed Americans divided on whether retailers should use a generic holiday greeting. White evangelicals (69 percent) and Republicans (64 percent), along with Midwesterners, Southerners, and rural residents, are more likely to prefer "Merry Christmas." The American Family Association reports that the percentage of advertisers specifically referencing Christmas has jumped from 20 to 80 in the past five years. "Politically correct holiday verbiage," says Randy Sharp of the AFA, "is going away."

For all the discord, Christmas still presents significant opportunities for churches. According to LifeWay, nearly half of Americans-including 22 percent of those professing other faiths-attended a church service over the holiday. Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, noted that Christians overwhelmed with Christmas activities often miss the opportunity to represent Christ "to a world in need of the biblical understanding of 'peace on earth.'"
Timothy Dalrymple is an editor and writer with patheos.com

Timothy Dalrymple
Timothy Dalrymple

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