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‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays’? What these preferences reveal

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a USA Thank You Tour event in Mobile, AL, on Dec. 17, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Lucas Jackson *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-HAPPY-HOLIDAYS, originally published on Dec. 19, 2016.

(RNS) Standing in front of a row of Christmas trees in Wisconsin last week, President-elect Donald Trump repeated one of his campaign trail promises:

“When I started 18 months ago, I told my first crowd in Wisconsin that we are going to come back here some day and we are going to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again. … So Merry Christmas, everyone. Happy New Year, but Merry Christmas,” Trump said.

But Americans remain split on whether they prefer to be met in stores with “Merry Christmas” or a more general greeting like “Happy Holidays,” according to poll results released Monday by Public Religion Research Institute.

The poll found 47 percent of Americans say stores and other businesses should use “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” out of respect for people of non-Christian faiths, while 46 percent say they should not. Those results have not changed much since 2010, when those numbers were 44 percent and 49 percent, respectively, according to PRRI.

Still, Americans’ answers reveal divides by religion, politics and age.

Nearly two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants and 58 percent of Catholics preferred “Merry Christmas,” while similar numbers of non-white Protestants (56 percent) and religiously unaffiliated Americans (58 percent) preferred an all-inclusive greeting, according to the poll.

White mainline Protestants closely mirrored national numbers with 48 percent preferring “Merry Christmas” and 46 percent, “Happy Holidays.”

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Republicans were as likely to support “Merry Christmas” (67 percent) as Democrats were to support “Happy Holidays” (66 percent). And young adults ages 18 to 29 were more likely to support nonspecific greetings (67 percent), while adults aged 65 and older wanted to hear “Merry Christmas” (54 percent).


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Greetings notwithstanding, Christmas is the most popularly celebrated holiday in a month packed with festivities.

Nearly nine in ten (89 percent) Americans say they will celebrate the birth of Jesus this December. Another 4 percent say they will celebrate Advent, 3 percent will celebrate Hanukkah or the winter solstice and 1 percent, Kwanzaa, according to PRRI.

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That comes as the number of Americans celebrating Christmas as a secular holiday, more about Santa Claus and elves and reindeer and presents, has jumped to 27 percent this year, up from 19 percent who said their observance was “not too religious” in 2005.

Four percent of Americans say they will not celebrate any holidays this month, according to poll results.

PRRI surveyed 1,004 Americans ages 18 and older via telephone between Dec. 7 and 11, according to the organization. The margin of error for the poll is plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

23 Comments

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  • The ONLY appropriate holiday greeting is “Gruß vom Krampus”. “Gruss vom Krampus” is also acceptable for anyone who doesn’t want to bother with the German double-s, but “Gruß” is, of course, preferable.

  • Given that I associate Merry Christmas with the secular Santa Claus, either phrase works for me. When I buy Christmas cards, I have two lots – one that falls under the religious category and one seasonal. I have yet to pick up a religious Christmas greeting card that contains the phrase Merry Christmas in it.

  • “Do you think stores and businesses should greet their customers with ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Seasons Greetings’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’ out of respect for people of different faiths, or not?”

    As a person of “different” faith who has respect for people of different faiths, I’d rather there was a “they should greet their customers with whatever they feel like” option.

    Ain’t my business if you want to greet someone with “Gruß vom Krampus” like is proper or if you’re some sort of heathen who wants to get Krampus out of Krampusnacht, say whatever you like.

    Ultimately, it’s not for me to decide.

    Those who make the right choice will know in their hearts it is right.

    And those who make the wrong choice get a visit from Krampus.

  • I just had the opportunity to test this out today, at home and at the city parking permit office. To the pizza delivery guy, I said “Thanks, and have a great holiday!” He smiled and said “Thanks, you too!” To the city clerk I said “Thanks, and have a great holiday!” She smiled and said “Thanks, Merry Christmas!” And I smiled and said “Merry Christmas!” As it turns out, people may say whatever they like. How about that?

  • “It’s a slow news day let’s generate some Fox News style outrage.” Seriously though this is trash and far beneath this website. Leave the yellow journalism to the editorial outlets.

  • My practice is to say “Merry Christmas” to friends or acquaintances that celebrate it, “Happy Hanukkah” for friends or acquaintances that celebrate it, and “Happy Holidays” for everyone else or if I’m not sure. I just bought some Hanukkah wrapping paper. It would have been incongruous for the clerk to wish me a Merry Christmas. On the other hand, if I see the Catholic priest that works in my office building, it would be incongruous not to.

  • I couldn’t care less whether someon says “Happy Holidays” or Merry Christmas” to me. But it does irk me when they decide that I should say THEIR preferred greeting. I have been berated by family members for sending out HOLIDAY cards, though these people know that my husband is Jewish and about half our cards go to people who do not celebrate Christmas.

    We send holiday cards to be inclusive of all our relatives and friends.

  • We send out photo cards of our family, so I get them printed with Happy Holidays–trying to be inclusive of ALL our friends and family, about a third of whom are Jewish (as is my hubby), most of the rest are Christian, and some are atheist, Muslim or I don’t know (and don’t really care) their religious preference. At least, this seemed inclusive to me, but I have been scolded by some Christian relatives who think I am insulting them by sending them a non-religious card.

  • I’m good with people saying what they want. Generally I’m good if someone sincerely wishes me happiness.

    FTR I’m atheist and say happy holidays, knowing Christians across the devout spectrum and non-Christians that celebrate a winter holiday of some sort. Let’s have gluhwein or eggnog or cider and just enjoy friendly company.

  • That is how I do it also.. Afterall, shouldn’t the greeting match the person I am greeting rather than myself.

    This War on Christmas stuff just shows everyone that they use their religion to build their own ego’s and really could care less about the “Good Will towards Men” part of the holiday. I bet they judge their relationships by how much they think someone spent on their present too.

  • Kinda shows us what their beliefs are.. They are right.. everyone else is wrong . That compassion, love and peace are worthless.. They have the only right religion and you should be punished if you don’t agree.. It always looks to me like they are motivated by only hate and fear. No real faith in anything really.

  • I say “Merry Xmas” out of lifelong habit. I think that’s actually secular. If I said “Happy Jesus’ Birthday” that would be a religious greeting. As for what’s said to me? I don’t care.
    “Peace on Earth,
    Good Will to Women.” ?

  • Fictitious is one thing, but imaginary is another. I think B.O. knew it was fictitious, but it was imaginary to most of his fans. OoooweeeOooO.

  • Our family mans the red kettle for Salvation Army this time of year at our largest supermarket. We say ‘Merry Christmas’, but the response is often ‘Happy Holidays’ or just a smile. The smiles are the best.

  • I say whatever pops out of my mouth, usually the same or similar words that are said to me. If I initiate a comment, I’ll probably say Happy Holidays or Enjoy the Holidays. That’ll automatically include Christmas and New Years.

    I could cause a stir by sounding like Ebenezer Scrooge and say “Bah! Humbug!”.

  • Ouch! I am wounded to the heart. Is there anything left in your store of goodwill to offer something to men? I note the little smiley face winking, so I presume that your last sentence was in the form of a joke. But I would like to suggest, “Good Will To All.” As to the noise being made over “Happy Holidays,” etymologically speaking, could it not be plausibly be parsed as “Happy Hol(y) Days,” thus ending and solving the controversy.

  • Okay, men too. I always appreciate it when the writer makes it a point to explicitly include women. “Good Will To All” is an excellent expression.
    Happy Holi/Holy Days to you Edward.

  • ” Let’s have gluhwein or eggnog or cider and just enjoy friendly company. ”

    A simple and good recommendation, especially ‘just enjoy friendly company’.

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