"Happy Holidays" Rings Hollow for Most Americans

by Lydia Saad

One-third bothered by the generic greeting

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Most Americans think the trend toward saying "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" at Christmastime is a change for the worse. But is it therefore a bad marketing decision for retailers to greet customers this way? Gallup finds some evidence of a consumer backlash, as 32% of Americans say it bothers them when stores use "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" in their displays at this time of year instead of "Merry Christmas."

The poll, conducted Dec. 5-8, also finds that Americans expect to spend an average of $840 on Christmas gifts this year. This amount is statistically unchanged from what Americans expected to spend last year at this time.

Retail Details

Sixty-two percent of Americans say that the now nearly ubiquitous use of "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings," rather than "Merry Christmas," in many stores and public institutions is a change for the worse. Only 24% consider it a change for the better.

While the generic greetings bother a third of the public, there is almost unanimous public tolerance for the phrase, "Merry Christmas." Only 3% of national adults say it bothers them when stores specifically refer to the Christian holiday in their displays, rather than "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings."

Perhaps surprising, and counter to the inclusive rationale for saying "Happy Holidays," is the finding that only 5% of those who do not identify with any religion and just 8% of all non-Christians say they are bothered when confronted with "Merry Christmas" wishes while shopping.

Christian Right Is Most Bothered by Generic Greetings

Fierce debate over seasonal greetings is a regular occurrence on cable television these days, as dueling pundits argue about whether "Happy Holidays" is simply a more inclusive approach to dealing with a multicultural public, or a deliberate slap against Christians.

Despite the arguments, the use of the generic holiday expressions does not bother most Americans in general, including most major political and religious groups examined in this survey. But substantial minorities are bothered -- enough, perhaps, to cause concern among some retailers.

Those generic greetings are most likely to irk Republicans (48%), conservatives (44%), and weekly churchgoers (42%). The greetings generate much less annoyance among Democrats (17%), liberals (21%), and those who seldom or never attend church (25%).

There is no significant difference between men and women in their reactions to holiday greetings. However, young adults (18- to 29-year-olds) are notably less bothered by the trend toward generic phrases than are adults aged 30 and older.

Christmas Has Broad Appeal

One reason for the broad acceptance of "Merry Christmas" is that the vast majority of Americans are Christians. Gallup's 2004 polling (an aggregate of all religion questions asked last year) puts the total percentage affiliating with some form of Christianity at 84%. However, according to a December 2003 Gallup Poll, an even higher percentage of Americans -- 95% -- celebrate Christmas; only 5% do not. Clearly large numbers of secular and non-Christian Americans take part in the holiday for cultural, if not religious, reasons.

Still, with Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa all being celebrated around the same time, perhaps it was inevitable that the traditional salutation -- "Merry Christmas" -- would yield to a more generic greeting like "Happy Holidays." Not only is this shift evident with some major U.S. retailers, but a Gallup Poll last year found that 4 in 10 Americans themselves tended to say "Happy Holidays" when greeting someone they just met.

Spending Intentions Are Flat

It is not clear whether consumers put off by advertisements for "holiday trees," "holiday cards," and by being wished "Happy Holidays" when paying for "holiday ornaments" will alter their Christmas shopping as a result. They could become selective about where they shop, they could do less shopping than in the past, or they could make no changes.

Gallup can only broadly address consumer Christmas spending, with a question asking Americans to estimate the amount they will spend on Christmas gifts in the current year. For each of the past three years, Gallup has measured this once in early November and again in early December. Because spending intentions change as Christmas draws near (the December estimate is always higher), November and December comparisons must be made separately.

This year, the November and December trends are seemingly contradictory. The November 2005 estimate of Americans' average spending on Christmas gifts was slightly higher than in November 2004: $763 vs. $730. The December estimate is down slightly from a year ago: $840 vs. $862. However, it is important to note that neither shift is statistically significant, and that the more likely finding is that consumers' year-to-year spending intentions are flat.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,013 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Dec. 5-8, 2005. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Looking ahead for a moment to the Christmas holiday season,

27. Roughly how much money do you think you personally will spend on Christmas gifts this year?


$1,000 or more


$500-$999


$250-$499


$100-$249


Under $100


No opinion



Median

Mean (w/ zero)

Mean (w/o zero)

%

%

%

%

%

%

2005 Dec 5-8

33

27

14

12

3

11

$500

$840

$892

2005 Nov 7-10

30

26

13

16

3

12

$500

$763

$816

2004 Dec 5-8

33

24

17

11

3

12

$600

$862

$920

2004 Nov 7-10

29

25

16

17

2

11

$500

$730

$778

2003 Dec 11-14

31

28

18

13

3

7

$500

$776

$794

2003 Nov 10-12

30

25

18

14

3

10

$500

$734

$773

2002 Nov 22-24

30

30

15

15

3

7

$500

$753

$769

2002 Nov 11-14

25

27

18

14

3

13

$500

$690

$743

2002 Oct 14-17

25

26

16

14

2

17

$500

$695

$745

2001 Nov 26-27

32

30

15

13

2

9

$500

$794

$820

2000 Nov 13-15

33

28

15

13

2

9

$500

$817

$847

1999 Nov 18-21

35

27

14

13

6

5

$500

$857

$893

1998 Dec 4-6

24

25

22

14

8

7

--

--

--

1994 Dec 2-5

22

20

23

19

9

7

--

--

--

1993 Dec 4-6

19

27

20

17

8

9

--

--

--

1992 Dec 12-18

19

24

20

18

10

9

--

--

--

1991 Dec 12-15

20

24

22

19

7

8

--

--

--

1990 Nov 29-Dec 2

17

25

23

19

7

9

--

--

--

1989 Oct 12-15

18

23

25

15

4

15

--

--

--

^NOTE: Includes those who say they do not celebrate Christmas or do not plan to spend any money on Christmas gifts.

29. As you may know, many stores and other public institutions now use the words "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" rather than "Merry Christmas" in their displays and in their interactions with the public. Do you think this is a change for the better or a change for the worse?

Change for
the better

Change for
the worse

NO DIFFERENCE
(vol.)

No
opinion

2005 Dec 5-8

24%

62

12

2

(vol.) = Volunteered response

Q.30-31 ROTATED

30. Does it bother you when stores use the words "Merry Christmas" on their displays at this time of year instead of "Happy Holidays" or"Season's Greetings," or not?

Yes,
bothers

No,
does not

No
opinion

2005 Dec 5-8

3%

97

*

31. Does it bother you when stores use the words "Happy Holidays" or"Season's Greetings" on their displays at this time of year instead of "Merry Christmas," or not?

Yes,
bothers

No,
does not

No
opinion

2005 Dec 5-8

32%

68

*

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Gallup http://www.gallup.com/poll/20458/Happy-Holidays-Rings-Hollow-Most-Americans.aspx
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