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.
There are real generational differences in the way people say they will incorporate religion into their commemoration of Christmas. Young adults are less likely than older people to view the holiday as religious. —Gregory Smith, director of U.S. Religion Surveys for Pew

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.

"In terms of how people celebrate today and how they marked Christmas when they were children, you have to be careful about describing it as decline or growth," Smith said. "We asked about the childhood and what they typically did. We asked specifically about what they did this year, too. What it gives us is a good sense of how the celebration of this year's holiday will compare to what they typically did as children."

Robert and Patty Wells, who live in the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City, celebrate very much as their parents and even their grandparents did, Patty Wells said. For generations — going back before her birth — the Christmas family party included weighing and measuring everyone. When her grandfather died, she said with a laugh, the in-laws rebelled and that part of the festivity ended. But the party is still the day after Christmas, involving extended families, and families still participate in a talent show.

As for Christmas Eve and Christmas, the individual families gather and read the scriptures, she said. "Before any mention of hanging stockings or talking about Santa, there's a close reading of Luke 2."

On Christmas Day, the grandchildren will come over and they will, among other things, perform a costumed human Nativity, Wells said.

In the survey, almost 70 percent said they attended religious services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day when they were children. Now it's just over half. Smith noted that people could volunteer that they were attending Christmas-related services on a different day and some did say that, but not many.

Loving Santa

The jolly old elf, Santa Claus, gets love from a perhaps-unexpected source, Smith said. About one-third of Americans plan to pretend that Santa has come to call with gifts. The surprise for Smith, though, was that while 69 percent of those are people who have children at home, another one in five who have no kids at home intend to pretend Santa visited, too.

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"That speaks to the attraction of that particular aspect of Christmas," he said. In his own childhood, he said, one of his mom's cousins used to drop gifts on the front porch on Christmas Eve as part of an endearing and enduring part of the holiday.

Gregoire was raised agnostic but accepting of others' holiday traditions. Of "Merry Christmas," he said, "I don't mind hearing it or saying it." But in New York, where he lives, he noted, "so many don't celebrate" that people tend to be careful with their words. He believes people who are religious but of non-Christian faiths are the most sensitive to the holiday as a religious observance.

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