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Nonexistent Culture Wars And The Nonexistent ‘War On Christmas’

Merry Christmas Happy Holidays

FiveThirtyEight’s Andrew Lewis and Paul Djupe used survey data to determine the status of one of the primary complaints of those who claim there is a “War On Christmas,” the whole ‘Happy Holidays’ v. ‘Merry Christmas’ controversy

‘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.

Here’s the map:

Merry Christmas Happy Holidays Map

Beyond these broad regional trends, though, the authors note that preferences tend to vary at more local levels:

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.

It’s not surprising, of course, that someone who is more religious would be more sensitive to the entire “Merry Christmas” v. “Happy Holidays” controversy, or indeed the entire “War On Christmas” meme, notwithstanding the fact that it is utterly ridiculous to say that Christmas per se is somehow under assault. This would be especially true in the culture as a whole given the fact that one begins to see signs of the holiday in stores and other locations earlier and earlier each year. Religiosity certainly plays a large role in how one perceives this, but it seems clear that it depends largely on the kind of religiosity one it talking about. The fact that surveys do not indicate that people in the South are, as a whole, particularly bothered by the fact that people may say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” given the fact that this region is seen as one of the more religious areas of the country. As Lewis and Djupe note, though, it seems as though the results in this region are being influenced heavily by African-American respondents who, while generally quite religious, are not as bothered by the whole issue in the manner that some other Christians are.

On the whole, the distinction that seems to make the biggest difference in one’s opinion regarding the whole “Merry Christmas” v. “Happy Holidays” issue seems to be if one is an evangelical or conservative Christian as opposed to a member of a more “mainline” Protestant Church or a Roman Catholic. Based on the numbers in the most studies linked in the FiveThirtyEight post, it seems clear that one is more likely to be troubled by the use of these different greetings, or the whole “War On Christmas” meme to begin with, if one falls into the former group rather than the latter. Given the fact that these groups seem to have the idea that Christianity is under assault in general, that’s not entirely surprising, although it doesn’t entirely explain why the West and Mountain West in particular seems to prefer “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays” given the outsized influence one would expect California and the Pacific Northwest to have in results in this kind of survey.

In any case, what these numbers suggest is that the “War On Christmas” is just another example of the so-called “culture war” that many on the right claim has been going on in this country for decades now. Many of these groups already live in an ideological bubble where they see themselves as constant victims of largely non-existent persecution as it is, so it’s not hard to believe that they would see something as innocuous as “Happy Holidays!,” the fact that school pageants this time of year tend to feature secular Christmas songs rather than religious Christmas carols, or a change to Starbucks cups as not a recognition of the fact that Christmas is both a secular and a religious holiday, but as a sign that their faith is under assault. From this perspective, the whole idea of a “War On Christmas” is more than just a silly meme perpetuated by Fox News Channel and other media outlets, but a reflection of wider cultural issues that continue throughout the year.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Monala says:

    African-Americans as a whole don’t watch Fox News or listen to hate radio. (Stephen Colbert did a spot in which, after reading that only 7% of AAs watch Fox News, decided to determine who those 7% were. His conclusion: 50% of the 7% are people who are stuck in the waiting room of Jiffy Lube while their oil is being changed; the other 50% are Juan Williams.)

    Anyway, in part as a result of not being brainwashed by Fox, African-Americans haven’t jumped on that train.

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  2. Pch101 says:

    The “war on Christmas” is dumb and cynical beyond belief. I’m an agnostic who would be an atheist if forced to choose.

    But I also offer Christmas greetings. At this point, Christmas is a secular holiday, and it’s nice to be inclusive. It’s a shame that this has become some sort of reactionary totem that has been included as part of the Religious Right’s effort to turn the US into a Christian theocracy when it should be simply part of our multicultural tradition of blending our various heritages together.

    I’ve spent a fair amount of time abroad, and I’ve always appreciated it when the locals included me in their rituals and holidays. I also have quite a few Jewish friends and have partaken in just about every Jewish tradition that you can imagine, and I’ve been glad that they made a place for me and invited me to participate. That generosity of spirit makes the world a better place, and has nothing in common with an insipid battle against red coffee cups.

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  3. Ron Beasley says:
  4. Tyrell says:

    Most school Christmas programs have a mixture of secular and sacred Christmas music and songs. I think that is what most people expect and want at programs like that.

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  5. gVOR08 says:

    @Pch101: I am, apparently like you, an ignostic, which is to say I’d be an atheist if I thought it was a fit question for adults. And may I say quite sincerely to the entire OTB community – Merry Christmas.

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  6. Gustopher says:

    When we lose the ability to make people say things the exact way we want, we’ve lost our freedoms.

    So, Merry Christmas, Islamic Terrorists!

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  7. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    Merry Christmas to all fellow OTBers :-)

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  8. rodney dill says:

    Cry Havoc and let slip the howls of Merry Christmas.

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  9. Mr. Prosser says:

    Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals, and a happy, healthy, prosperous and opinionated New Year.

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  10. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    “although it doesn’t entirely explain why the West and Mountain West in particular seems to prefer “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays” given the outsized influence one would expect California and the Pacific Northwest to have in results in this kind of survey.”

    Well, I like to think that the explanation is that the outsized influence (a whole 3% BTW) exerted by Cali and the PNW is influence exerted by relatively SANE people, but that’s just my opinion. I have no data on this point.

    And happy holidays to all.

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  11. André Kenji De Sousa says:

    Happy Saturnalia to everyone.

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  12. DrDaveT says:

    On the whole, the distinction that seems to make the biggest difference in one’s opinion regarding the whole “Merry Christmas” v. “Happy Holidays” issue seems to be if one is an evangelical or conservative Christian as opposed to a member of a more “mainline” Protestant Church or a Roman Catholic.

    No, that’s not it. Trust me on this one; I grew up in a ‘liberal’ evangelical household. I know the players.

    The distinction you’re looking for is not evangelical vs. traditional, nor (shudder) ‘conservative’ versus ‘liberal’. It’s theocratic vs. secular.

    The people who object to non-religious winter greetings believe that the US is an explicitly Christian polity, and that the legal deference due to Christianity in that polity is under attack. That is the “War on Christmas”. And, to be fair, they are right — more people are beginning to ask themselves why Christian beliefs have higher legal status than other religious beliefs, and vastly higher status than atheism, if we’re really a secular nation.

    Of course, most Christians are also Americans who understand that the Constitution is not a religious text, and that it gives no preferential status to Christianity (or any flavor thereof) over other religions or no religion. There are lots of Christians who believe firmly in separation of Church and State. The ones who don’t are the ones who whine about a War on Christmas.

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  13. MarkedMan says:

    Although a progressive I feel that political correctness often goes too far and sometimes actually makes worse what it intends to alleviate. In this way, I am probably like many of those who are upset about ‘Happy Holidays’ (FTR I mostly say HH but sometimes say Merry Christmas). Unlike those poor souls though, I totally get the irony of people complaining about the horrors of PC in one breathe and then railing about how someone is using the wrong phrase (Happy Holidays) and how ignorant they are to use it despite their good intentions.

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  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Ron Beasley: The Quran has a whole chapter dedicated to Mary (spelled “Maryam’).

    I say it again, Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God, the God of Abraham, just in different ways.

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  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Bah! Humbug! And a Happy belated Winter Solstice to all on the right side of the Equator. All you people on the wrong side of the equator need to get your own holiday.

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  16. Tyrell says:

    @DrDaveT: Okay, I see what you are saying. What I am having problems with are these sorts of silly stuff:
    School principal censors “Charlie Browns Christmas” childrens’ play; but the parents came to the rescue and saved the day ! (Johnson County, Kentucky)
    Teacher told to remove pink, Hello Kitty Christmas tree
    Cornell University puts limits on Christmas decorations: snowflakes only ! Weird, bizarre !!
    University of Tennessee – huge controversy after guidelines sent out restricting decorations and celebrations, then the administration takes it back, and common sense returned
    Of course, most of this is the extreme pc from a fes misguided individuals and groups that just try to stir up trouble. It also goes back to common sense. A pink, Hello Kitty tree offensive ? “Charlie Brown” ? Please.
    There appears to be a growing outcry about some of the foolishness. People are standing up and speaking out.

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  17. Pch101 says:

    The people who object to non-religious winter greetings believe that the US is an explicitly Christian polity

    To my agnostic non-Christian ears, “Happy Holidays” sounds a bit half-assed, reminding me of those silly terms that some use to avoid uttering profanities. It’s not as if people run around at New Year’s parties wishing each other “Happy Holidays,” and it would be a bit weird if somebody did.

    I have less than zero desire for a Christian theocracy, but avoiding the use of the word Christmas is not the way to protect secularism. As noted, Christmas has become a secular holiday, anyway – let’s remember that it was not celebrated by the pilgrims (they even passed laws against it), and it is now something that we associate most strongly with colored lights, trees, elves, gifts and a fat guy who breaks into houses. The most enjoyable parts of Christmas are derived from paganism (thank God).

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  18. DrDaveT says:

    @Pch101:

    As noted, Christmas has become a secular holiday, anyway

    Only Christians think this. That should be a tip-off.

    It is certainly true that even more zealous Christians in the past have objected to Christmas as being insufficiently pure. Just like zealous Republicans object to Jeb Bush as not being a sufficiently pure Republican. This does not mean that Jeb Bush is not a Republican after all, nor that his policies are seen as neutral by non-Republicans.

    …but have a Merry Christmas anyway. :-)

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  19. Pch101 says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Only Christians think this.

    The non-Christian Japanese like Christmas. KFC uses the occasion as an opportunity to sell fried chicken. (You may have been unaware that Americans traditionally eat Kentucky Fried Chicken for Christmas, but apparently we do.)

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/christmas-in-japan-hundreds-queue-outside-of-kfc-branches-in-tokyo-for-japanese-christmas-tradition-a6785571.html

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  20. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    @MarkedMan: And then there are people like this who can make positive best wishes into a culture war insult in five words. Honestly some people need an extra helping of common sense under their trees :P.

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  21. rachel says:

    It’s beyond sad that anyone needs to pay a particle of attention to this “controversy.”

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  22. Rafer Janders says:

    @Pch101:

    It’s not as if people run around at New Year’s parties wishing each other “Happy Holidays,” and it would be a bit weird if somebody did.

    Actually, in the classic 1942 movie “Holiday Inn”, Bing Crosby sings the song “Happy Holidays” at…the New Year’s party scene.

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  23. Rafer Janders says:

    @Pch101:

    It’s not as if people run around at New Year’s parties wishing each other “Happy Holidays,” and it would be a bit weird if somebody did.

    Also, New Year’s fall in the middle of the Christmas season, which runs from December 25th to January 5th (or January 6th depending on how you count).

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  24. gVOR08 says:

    When I was a kid in rural ND “Happy Holidays” signs were quite common despite the nearly complete absence of anyone except avowed Christians. The deep cultural meaning was not having to change signs for New Years.

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  25. Mikey says:

    At my house we say Froehliche Weihnachten. “Glueckliche Feiertage” just doesn’t have the same ring.

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  26. MarkedMan says:

    @Mikey: ok. I give up. Translation?

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  27. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays

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  28. Ron Beasley says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: And all of the Arbhamic religions are spin offs from Zoroastrianism. They are all really worshiping Mazda..

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