When you think of Christmas, is it more likely to conjure up images of a lulling Jesus or a laughing Santa, gift-bearing wise men or bargain-hunting shoppers, a bright star in the East or blinking lights on the house?
For more and more Americans, a new survey shows, yuletide is seen as a cultural holiday, not a religiously rooted holy day. Indeed, the biblical Nativity story itself is finding fewer believers.
In a telephone survey of 1,503 adults nationwide released Tuesday, the Pew Research Center found that of the 90 percent of Americans who will celebrate Christmas this year, 55 percent will mark it as a religious holiday (down from 59 percent in 2013).
Fewer than half (46 percent) see it as “more of a religious holiday” than a “cultural holiday.” That’s down from 51 percent four years ago.
Another 9 percent (up from 7 percent in 2013) view Christmas as both a religious and cultural event.
A third (33 percent) say Christmas is more a cultural than religious event (up from 32 percent in 2013); 10 percent (up from 8 percent) say they either do not celebrate or have another seasonal tradition.
Researchers learned further that while 54 percent of 2013’s respondents attended religious services Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, barely half (51 percent) plan to do so this year.
A more secular mindset also is growing among Americans concerning the holiday, Pew suggests. In another, 2014 study, 44 percent supported Christian-oriented displays on public property, such as Nativity scenes; the most recent survey found 37 percent favored them.
More than a quarter (26 percent) now oppose any religious holiday displays on government sites in the new survey, a 6 percentage point jump from 2014’s survey.
Even displays combining other religious symbols — such as Jewish Hanukkah candles — saw a decline in backing, from 72 percent three years ago to 66 percent now.
White evangelical Christians (80 percent) remain the strongest supporters of public property Nativity displays, though that sentiment was down from 90 percent in 2014; Roman Catholics came in at 70 percent (a 5 percent dip); and Protestants overall were at 74 percent, down from 80 percent three years ago.
The 2017 survey found 71 percent of black Protestants favored public property Christmas displays, but Pew did not have an earlier comparison for that particular demographic.
The survey’s respondents were not broken down further by denominational affiliations, including Mormons.
Belief in the biblical account of Christ’s birth also has slipped, Pew reports. Though 66 percent of Americans overall still believe Jesus was born of a virgin, that is down from 73 percent in 2014.
Seventy-five percent believe the Christ child was “laid in a manger,” down from 81 percent three years ago; 68 percent accept the account of the Magi from the East following a star visiting the infant Jesus (down from 5 percent); and 67 percent hold to the scriptural record about angels announcing the birth to shepherds (compared to 74 percent in 2014).
Asked if they believe in all four of those elements of the Nativity story together, 57 percent said they did — down from 65 percent three years ago.
Pew researchers concluded that Americans who described themselves as religious “nones” accounted for much of the decline in belief in the Christmas narrative. In the new study, 11 percent — down from 21 percent — of religiously unaffiliated Americans accepted all four points of the biblical Bethlehem account.
There was even a modest erosion in belief among those identifying as Christians. Seventy-six percent embrace the entire of Christmas story compared to 81 percent in 2014.
“To be sure, large majorities of Christians still believe in key elements of the Nativity story as described in the Bible,” Pew researchers summarized. “But the share of Christians who believe in the virgin birth, the visit of the Magi, the announcement of Jesus’ birth by an angel and the baby Jesus lying in the manger all have ticked downward in recent years.”
Broken down by political affiliation, three-quarters of Republicans said they accepted all four gospel Nativity elements; fewer than half (47 percent) of Democrats did.
Researchers also say they unearthed “an important generational component to trends in beliefs about the Christmas story.”
Millennials saw the sharpest decline in acceptance, plunging from 59 percent in 2014 to just 44 percent now. So-called “Gen Xers” slid from 67 percent to 62 percent; baby boomers retreated from 68 percent to 65 percent. Only those born before 1945, labeled the “Silent Generation,” increased their faith in the Nativity story (70 percent, compared to 66 percent in 2014).
As for the much-ballyhooed “war on Christmas” debate, Pew found the importance to Americans of retail outlets offering “Merry Christmas” welcomes rather than generic “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings” has indeed been in long-term decline.
Between 2005 and now, researchers reported, survey respondents who said it “doesn’t matter” what form of greeting they receive while shopping rose from 45 percent to 52 percent. Those who specifically favor the term, “Merry Christmas,” dropped from 43 percent 12 years ago to just 32 percent now.
The survey was conducted between Nov. 29 and Dec. 4 and has an overall margin for error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.