The way President Donald Trump sees things, his tax-bill win on Capitol Hill was a giant -- maybe even “yuuuuge” -- Christmas present for America.
“Remember I said we’re bringing Christmas back? Christmas is back, bigger and better than ever before,” he said, speaking in Utah earlier this week. “We’re bringing Christmas back and we say it now with pride. Let me just say, to those here today and all across the country: Merry Christmas to everybody.”
That’s good rhetoric for a political rally, as long as most of the cheering people think of Christmas as a cultural season built on gifts, travel, fun, food and festivities with friends and family. And that turns out to be true for 43.1 percent of those polled in a new survey by the Polling Institute at Saint Leo University in central Florida. Only 3.9 percent viewed Christmas exclusively in religious terms, and another 11.4 percent viewed it as “mostly religious.”
“It’s important to realize that the commercialization of the season doesn’t appear to be the driving factor in what’s creating the cultural Christmas we see today,” said Marc Pugliese, who teaches religion and theology at Saint Leo.
Many Americans, in fact, are “tired or fed up” with the tsunami of advertising and materialism they see every December, he added. “So you can’t just say that the shopping mall has won. ... But the reality is that almost everything that’s going on is defined by the culture’s secular calendar -- what’s happening at school, at work and in the media.”
The bottom line, he said, is clear: “Christmas is about parties and get-togethers with family and friends.”
On the other side of the equation, 42.4 percent of those surveyed picked the “commercialization of the season” as the most annoying American Christmas “tradition,” with 38.3 percent saying that the “early start for the Christmas season” got the nod in that department.
At the same time, however, 39.4 percent of those surveyed marked Black Friday -- the shopping blitz the day after Thanksgiving -- as the official beginning of the “Christmas holiday season,” with another 16.2 saying the season starts somewhere between Halloween and Thanksgiving.
Only 1.9 percent said that the Christmas season begins on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day -- the Christian tradition for centuries. And only 5.3 percent mentioned the solemn four-week season of Advent, which leads up to Dec. 25, the Holy Day known as the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. However, 72.3 percent said “Merry Christmas” remains their preferred holiday greeting.
When does the “Christmas holiday season” end? That would be New Year’s Day, according to 45.5 percent of those polled. Only 17.9 percent mentioned the end of the 12 days of Christmas, or the Feast of Epiphany (Three Kings Day) on Jan. 6.
Young Americans have a more secular view of the season than their elders, with their attitudes roughly corresponding to years of research by the Gallup Organization, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and others into the rising numbers of “nones” -- the religiously unaffiliated -- in America.
The survey results, Pugliese added, are “indicative of how Christmas is getting more and more cultural than religious with each new generation. ... More baby boomers see Christmas as religious than Americans in Generation X, and more Generation Xers see Christmas as a religious holiday than millennials.
“Once again, it’s clear that lots of young people are religious, but it’s more of a personal thing where they pick and choose what is and what isn’t ‘spiritual’ to them. More and more young people don’t look to religious institutions for guidance on that.”
Thus, it’s true that Christian traditions define Christmas for relatively few Americans, especially the young, said Pugliese. However, it’s also true that many Americans are stressed out and anxious during this cultural steamroller of a season.
How can church leaders respond to that?
“They need to know that the values the church believes are important are decreasing in their flocks,” he said. “Christmas is being watered down by everything that’s happening in the culture. ... If they want their people to know what Christmas is about, then they are going to have to teach them that and find ways for parents to teach that to their children at home.”
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)