Nonexistent Culture Wars And The Nonexistent ‘War On Christmas’
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:
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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