Why the Christmas Wars are receding

New research shows why increasing pluralism may spell end of so-called ‘war on Christmas’
By Robert P. Jones,
Public Religion Research Institute,

New research suggests that the end of the so-called “Christmas wars”—battles over how exclusively Christian public greetings or holiday displays should be—may come from a surprising place: Aunt Susan.  The “Christmas wars” seem this year to have been limited to a few smoldering skirmishes. The flagging enthusiasm for a 2010 holiday fight at least in part stems from worries about gifts and tight budgets, and a weariness with political divisiveness in the wake of one of the most divisive and negative campaign seasons in recent memory.

But it also reflects a more enduring trend: the increasing diversity of American families and social networks. In their recent book American Grace, researchers Robert Putnam and David Campbell have recently described the effects of these trends as the “Aunt Susan” and “my friend Al” principles: as more Americans have diverse families and friendships, they have warmer views of other religious traditions.

For example, here are just two examples of Putnam and Campbell’s findings on the diversity and churn in the American religious landscape:

* Between one-third and one-half of all Americans are in interfaith marriages;
* About one-third of Americans have switched religions at some point in their lives.

In a recent survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, we also found evidence of a diverse America navigating Christmas celebrations in complex ways. On the one hand, Christmas is a dominant holiday—96% of Americans, including most religiously unaffiliated Americans, report celebrating Christmas.

On the other hand, the PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey also found evidence of religious diversity and complexity in December holiday celebrations:

* 1-in-10 Americans say they have an “Aunt Susan,” a member of their family who also celebrates another December holiday such as Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Al-Hijrah (the Muslim New Year).
* Non-religious cultural celebrations also compete and are intermixed with religious celebrations. For example, roughly as many Americans read “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” about Santa Claus (43%) as read the biblical story of Jesus’ birth (40%) as part of their traditional Christmas celebration.

The PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey also found that despite the dominance of Christmas celebrations, nearly half (44%) of Americans say stores and businesses should greet their customers with “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings” rather than “merry Christmas” out of respect for people of different faiths. While nearly half (49%) of Americans disagree, in a recent RNS article, Putnam noted that such a significant number of Americans preferring the more generic greetings “represents a major change over the last 50 years toward greater interfaith sensitivity.”

If these trends towards greater diversity continue, the data suggests that as more families are making room for Aunt Susan at the holiday table, fewer Americans will retain a taste for the “Christmas wars.”

Public Religion Research Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan research and education organization specializing in work at the intersection of religion, values and public life.

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