President Donald Trump wanted to make America say “Merry Christmas” again. And, if you ask him, he succeeded.

He celebrated his achievement during a recent rally in Georgia, after sharing the seasonal greeting with the crowd.

“Remember we started five years ago, and I said, ‘You’re going to be saying Christmas again.’ We say it proudly again,” he said at the Dec. 5 event, according to Business Insider.

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However, Trump also warned his supporters not to get complacent. He said that cherished Christmas traditions are still at risk, implying that the Biden administration will be hostile to people of faith.

“They’ll be trying to take that word again out of the vocabulary. We’re not going to let them,” he said.

Surveys on Christmas don’t support Trump’s prediction, but they do include other potential reasons for Christians to be concerned for the holiday’s future.

Research shows that America’s relationship to Christmas really is changing, just not in the way the president and many of supporters think.

Season’s greetings

Even before entering the White House, Trump regularly criticized the country’s relationship with “Merry Christmas” greetings.

He condemned political correctness while on the campaign trail and attacked Starbucks’ decision to remove Christmas symbols from its holiday cups.

“Maybe we should boycott Starbucks,” he said during a campaign event in 2015.

Trump’s comments play into the narrative of a “war on Christmas,” which predates his political career. For at least the past 15 years, prominent conservatives have appeared on Fox News and in other media outlets to warn of the holiday’s imminent demise, as the political scientist Dan Cassino has previously noted in the Harvard Business Review.

“The thrust of the argument ... is that governments and large corporations are actively pushing an anti-Christian agenda,” he wrote in 2016.

President Donald Trump takes to the stage at a campaign-style rally at the Pensacola Bay Center, in Pensacola, Fla. on Dec. 8, 2017. | Susan Walsh, Associated Press

While Trump’s embrace of this talking point has seemed to turn saying “Merry Christmas” into a political act, it hasn’t appeared to affect the popularity of the phrase.

In 2016, just after Trump was elected, 57% of U.S. adults said they thought people should greet each other with “Merry Christmas” in December, according to a national poll from NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist.

Two years later, nearly an identical share of Americans (56%) said the same.

The poll did find that Republicans (80%) are nearly twice as likely as Democrats (42%) to prefer “Merry Christmas” greetings, but it also reported that “Happy Holidays” doesn’t have majority support from Democrats either.

In general, Americans feel free to greet people how they wish. Only 11% of Americans who prefer to say “Merry Christmas” believe they are actively discouraged from doing so, according to YouGov data released this month.

“Though Republicans are the most likely to believe that there is an ongoing war on Christmas, a majority (56%) say they are very or somewhat encouraged to say ‘Merry Christmas,’ YouGov reported.

Other surveys have shown that a growing portion of the country doesn’t care how they’re greeted by store clerks during the holiday season. In 2017, 52% of U.S. adults said it “doesn’t matter” what phrase is used, compared to 45% in 2005, Pew Research Center found.

Losing our religion

Although these findings can make “war on Christmas” rhetoric seem silly, research does confirm that secularization is gradually changing the holiday season.

For example, Gallup reported last year that only 35% of U.S. adults continue to celebrate Christmas as a “strongly religious” holiday. That figure dropped 15 percentage points from 2010 to 2019.

Twenty-six percent of Americans “say their celebrations are ‘not too religious,’ ... which mirrors the percentage of Americans who say religion is ‘not very important’ in their life,” researchers said.

Pew’s 2017 survey showed that most adults are aware of — and pretty comfortable with — this shift.

“When asked directly, most respondents (said) they think religious aspects of Christmas are emphasized less in American society today than in the past,” researchers said, noting that “relatively few Americans both perceive this trend and are bothered by it.”

Cross Hall and the Blue Room are decorated during the 2020 Christmas preview at the White House, Monday, Nov. 30, 2020, in Washington. | Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

Perhaps because of these trends, some conservative leaders have urged Republican politicians to ease off the “Merry Christmas” talk.

“No one is excited about a message that seems to be about anger and correctness,” wrote Michael McKenna, who previously served as a deputy assistant to President Trump and deputy director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, in his Washington Times column this week.

If you want to help people see the religious significance of the Christmas season, you need to meet them where they are, he added.

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“When someone wishes you season’s greetings or happy holidays, or whatever, don’t be annoyed. Take it as an opportunity to share the truth and be a light in the darkness. Treat everyone with kindness and help them have a merry Christmas,” McKenna said.

Kindness is an especially valuable resource this year, since many people are mourning lives lost to COVID-19 and disrupted holiday plans, as Jennifer Weiner, a television producer and author, recently pointed out in a column for The New York Times.

Rather than feel “embattled” and complain about the “war on Christmas,” Christians can offer comfort to those who are newly aware of how painful changes to the holiday season can be.

“We really, truly are missing out this holiday season, as we have been for most of this year,” Weiner wrote.

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