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Most Americans celebrate Christmas, but not all as religious holiday

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 17 2013 10:05 p.m. MST

Nine out of 10 Americans celebrate Christmas, but only half see it as a mostly religious holiday. A third see it as a mostly cultural holiday, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center.

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QUEENS, N.Y. — Stafford Gregoire and his wife, Linda Chandler, love Christmas. They love getting gifts and giving gifts, and they'll happily greet you with a "Merry Christmas." But the season is, to them, a secular American holiday.

For Rachelle and Don Glenn of Holladay, Utah, Christmas is what the name says: A day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. And while the family enjoys Santa and the gifts, the day's meaning will always revolve around its religious significance.

"We try to do the Sunday before with worship at our church," said Rachelle Glenn. "And Christmas Eve is more religious. We read the Christmas story from the Bible. We enacted it when the kids were younger, talked more about Jesus and read Luke 2. We keep (the religious and the secular) a bit separate."

With their eight kids, now 29 to 19, they let Christmas Day revolve around the Santa, gift-giving, playful side of the holiday.

These two families represent the two main approaches Americans have to celebrating Christmas. A new poll by the Pew Research Center says most Americans do celebrate the holiday — nine out of 10 of them — but only half see it as a mostly religious holiday. A third see it as a mostly cultural holiday.

"This was the first time we've explored specific topics about how people celebrate Christmas," said Gregory Smith, director of U.S. Religion Surveys for Pew, who noted that past surveys have focused more on other aspects, like the so-called Christmas wars. "It's not any surprise that the vast majority tell us they celebrate Christmas. But I was struck that only about half celebrate and see it as religious."

Young vs. old

There's also a generational component to some holiday celebration differences. For instance, Pew found that young people are less likely to say they will be sending Christmas cards this year. They are also less likely to say they went caroling when they were children. That's much less common among young adults in their 20s, compared with people who are now older adults.

"There are real generational differences in the way people say they will incorporate religion into their commemoration of Christmas," said Smith. "Young adults are less likely than older people to view the holiday as religious. They are less likely to plan to attend Christmas services. They are less likely to believe in a virgin birth. It's pretty striking and also consistent with other research that shows young people as 'religious nones,’ ” he added.

Christmases past

Today's Christmas celebrations are clearly rooted in past festivities, with current traditions often formed from those enjoyed as a child. The survey found that 86 percent of American adults say they will gather with family and friends on Christmas, and the same number plan to buy gifts for friends or family. Those numbers are similar to the numbers who say they did such things to celebrate in their childhood.

Other numbers differ more: 79 percent plan to put up a Christmas tree, while 92 percent said a tree was part of their childhood celebrations. There's a steeper difference in the numbers sending holiday or Christmas cards — 65 percent, compared with 81 percent who said card exchanges were part of their childhood holiday observance. The number attending religious services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day is also down, to 54 now from 69 percent in childhood.

Very few plan to go caroling, although that was never a majority activity, the survey found. Now, the number is 16 percent. Just over one in three said they went caroling as part of Christmas celebrations when they were kids.

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