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Don't believe in God? Have some eggnog anyway!

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: December 09, 2002

By THOMAS HARGROVE and GUIDO H. STEMPEL III

Scripps Howard News Service

Christmas isn't just for Christians anymore.

Nearly half of adult Americans report they personally know someone who doesn't believe in God but still will celebrate the yuletide this year, according to a survey of 1,001 people conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University.

Significantly more people will set up a Christmas tree than will attend a worship service on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. And Americans overwhelmingly believe the holiday has become less focused on the birth of Jesus than it used to be.

"Historically, it has been a struggle for America to find meaningful holidays that include a sufficiently broad number of people. But Christmas seems to have many modes of interpretation upon which we can set our own personal needs," said University of Texas historian Penne Restad, author of the scholarly book "Christmas in America: A History."

"Christmas has become as much a celebration of community as it has a celebration of religion," she said.

The survey asked if "you, personally, know anyone who does not believe in God but still celebrates Christmas?" Forty-five percent answered yes, 51 percent said no and 4 percent were undecided.

"Sure I know people like that. I'm one of them," said New Yorker Ron Barrier, a leader of American Atheists, a 2,500-member national organization defending the rights and interests of atheists. "As a free thinker, I believe the holidays are a great tradition regardless of the underlying basis for them. It's a wonderful time of celebration and a gathering of friends and family."

Barrier said he and many other atheists enjoy celebrating the slew of early winter holidays: Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and even the winter solstice.

"There is that old tradition that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. I certainly don't want to be an isolationist," Barrier said. "Christmas is seductive. I love this time of year. And it does seem that people behave a little better around the holidays, and that's always a good thing."

The poll found that younger Americans are significantly more likely to say they know an atheist or agnostic who celebrates Christmas than do people who are 45 years of age or older. People living on or near the West Coast are most likely to say they know a nonbeliever who celebrates while Southerners were least likely.

The poll found that about 80 percent plan to decorate a Christmas tree this year, including 68 percent of the people surveyed who said they have no religious preference.

(About a tenth of American adults routinely answer "none" when asked if they have a religious preference.)

The poll found that 62 percent expect to attend a Christmas religious service on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and 57 percent reported that Christmas is their favorite holiday.

The survey found that Thanksgiving is by far America's most universally celebrated holiday, with 90 percent reporting they attended a special meal on the fourth Thursday of November.

The survey also found an overwhelming sense that Christmas is losing its religious theme. Eighty-seven percent said they think the holiday has "become less religious than it used to be" while 11 percent believe most people still "focus on the birth of Jesus at Christmas time." Two percent were undecided.

"A kind of nostalgia has established itself around Christmas," Restad said. "Americans often say that we have to get back on track, morally. And there is the effect of the loss of our youth. In my youth, it seems we had better Christmases. The packages seemed bigger, the trees prettier."

The poll was conducted at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. Residents of the United States were interviewed by telephone from Oct. 13-28 in a study funded by a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation.

The poll has an overall 4 percentage point margin of error, although the margin increases when examining attitudes among smaller groups within the survey. The margin of error on how many Americans with no religious preference will decorate Christmas trees, for example, is 9 percentage points.

Further results of the poll may be found at www.newsPolls.org.