Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Fix

America never stopped saying 'Merry Christmas'

December 24, 2016 at 4:21 PM

Workers hang a Christmas wreath at Trump Tower on another day of meetings for President-elect Donald Trump on Nov. 22 in New York City. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly assured his audiences that, if he was elected, America would once again say, "Merry Christmas." Trump won, and earlier this month, one-time Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski declared victory in the "War on Christmas."

"You can say again, 'Merry Christmas,' because Donald Trump is now the president, you can say it again," Lewandowski said on Fox News's "Hannity" program. "It's not a pejorative word any more!"

With a sigh of relief, we can report that Americans never stopped saying "Merry Christmas" in the first place.

How do we know? The Internet. That's how.

Consider Google. People search Google for all sorts of things, including holiday greetings. And in the United States, searches for "Merry Christmas" have regularly outnumbered searches for "Happy Holidays" in December of the same year.

Or we can look at Reddit, the community site where thousands of people leave links and comments every day. Which expression do Redditors use? According to data compiled by FiveThirtyEight, even at Reddit people are far more likely to say "Merry Christmas" than "Happy Holidays." By a 2-to-1 ratio, at least.

It is certainly the case that some places use the more inclusive expression "Happy Holidays" in an effort not to alienate non-Christians. Among those who are more likely to do so are brands that are trying to sell people things, which is probably part of the reason that this became an issue in the first place. After all, corporate advertisements are seen by a lot more people than are Reddit comments, giving the impression that perhaps "Happy Holidays" is in broader use than may be the case.

Now if we're talking about books, it's a different story. Authors use the broader term far more than they use "Merry Christmas," according to Google Books' scans of thousands of volumes.

Perhaps Lewandowski and his former boss are spending more time reading books than being online.

Tracking usage in the New York Times suggests that the expression "Happy Holidays" was largely used as a way of describing the period from Christmas to New Year's Day, a carry-over from when the term "holiday" was used as a synonym for vacation.

This advertisement for Eastern Airlines in 1952 demonstrates that usage, in another context. We are sharing this ad mostly because those prices are amusing.

Over the next several decades, Pew Research estimates that the number of people who don't practice any religion will grow. In 2010, 78.3 percent of Americans were Christian; by 2050, that figure will be 66.4 percent. That's still two-thirds of the country — and the actual number of Christians will remain about the same.

For now, it's still the case that the majority of people in this country are Christian and happy to celebrate Christmas.

Why is this an issue at all? In part because the past few years have seen the issue of "Merry Christmas" as an effective point of leverage in political culture wars. That's why Trump first adopted the issue: He recognized its resonance, particularly among religious conservatives. And now that he's won, America can, as Lewandowski notes, return to saying "Merry Christmas" as they see fit.

As they already were.


Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in New York. Before joining The Post in 2014, he led politics coverage for the Atlantic Wire.

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