Religion fades from Christmas in US, but cultural traditions persevere

Pew poll finds that 90 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas, but only half say it's mostly a religious holiday

A Christmas tree outside the U.S. Capitol.
Basri Sahin/Anadolu Agency/Getty

The perception of Christmas as a religious holiday is waning in the United States, but the holiday's cultural traditions are as important as ever to Americans, according to Pew Research poll results released Wednesday. Respondents were asked to compare their perception and practice of Christmas between childhood and adulthood.

Whereas 90 percent of Americans of all creeds will celebrate Christmas in 2013 — including 80 percent of non-Christians — Pew found that only about half view Christmas mostly as a religious holiday, and a full third of the population considers it to be primarily a cultural event.

The gradual erosion of religion’s role from American celebrations of Christmas — "taking the Christ out of Christmas," as some pious critics say — is especially pronounced among 18-to-29-year-olds, who are less likely than older Americans to attend Christmas religious services or to believe in the biblical miracle Christmas is said to celebrate: that Jesus was born of a virgin.

Pew researchers said in a news release that their findings were “consistent with other research showing that younger Americans are helping to drive the growth of the religiously unaffiliated population within the U.S.”

The poll also surveyed the popularity of certain traditions — Santa Claus, caroling, holiday cards and the like — among 2,001 respondents living in all 50 states, and found that, for the most part, an adult’s traditions reflect his or her childhood practices.

The vast majority of Americans will attend a Christmas gathering with family or friends and exchange gifts as they did when they were children, for instance.

About 70 percent of Americans cite spending time with family and friends as the part of Christmas they look forward to the most. Religious reflection or attending church was a distant second at just 11 percent.

But a few cultural traditions appear to be fading. While 81 percent of Americans sent Christmas cards as children, just 65 percent will make the effort this year. And only 79 percent of Americans will haul an evergreen into their living rooms this December, compared with the 92 percent who put up a tree as children.

Halfway to secular?

Pew found a defined generational gap that may have wider implications for the erosion of Christian piety in America as well.

According to the University of Chicago's most recent General Social Survey, released earlier this year, 20 percent of Americans identify as having “no religious preference,” two times higher than in 1990 and four times higher than in 1972, the first year the survey was taken.

One-third of 18- to 24-year-olds in that survey declared “no religious preference.”

In a landmark survey published earlier this year, Pew found a similar trend among American Jews, with 32 percent of millennials describing themselves as “having no religion.”

Concurrently, Pew found that younger adults are less likely than those ages 50 and up to have grown up attending Christmas religious services, and as a result are considerably less likely to go to such services this year. Less than half of those ages 18 to 19 will attend this year, compared with the nearly 60 percent of those 50 and up who will.

To combat increasingly secular celebrations of Christmas in the U.S., some Christian groups like the Knights of Columbus have launched “Keep Christ in Christmas” campaigns, selling posters bearing that slogan and encouraging Americans to embrace “the true, spiritual meaning of Christmas.”

But atheist groups laud the secular holiday trend and point to other examples of widely celebrated holidays with Christian roots. Dave Muscato of the American Atheists, an advocacy group that promotes civil rights for atheists, told Al Jazeera that Christmas could soon be a totally secular holiday in the U.S.

“I think we are already halfway there,” Muscato said. “I think in another two or three generations, we will see it no differently than we see Valentine's Day today.”

But in a sign that the cultural traditions of Christmas are in no danger of extinction, a greater percentage of young people say they grew up spending the holiday with family or friends, and likewise are slightly more likely to gather with loved ones this Christmas than older Americans.

Santa Claus is also alive and well — although as fictional as ever — with roughly 70 percent of parents with children who believe in Santa saying they plan to pretend a reindeer-led sleigh will land on their roof this year.

And a slightly baffling 22 percent of American adults who don’t have children say they will still pretend Santa Claus will visit their homes this year, proving the adage that some Christmas traditions — like old habits — die hard.

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