December 22, 2009

Decline of Christmas: usage of "Christmas" vs. "holiday"

[Part one and part two]

Next up, let's see when the shift away from "Christmas" and toward "holiday(s)" began. I searched the NYT from November of a given year through January of the following year, just to make sure the context is Christmas rather than Easter or the Fourth of July. Here's the portion of all articles that use either word:

From at least 1950 to 1970, there's no change in how common either word is. During the 1970s, the NYT begins to focus a lot more on the Christmas theme, with both words seeing a big jump (although the one for "holiday" is a larger change). That settles down and both levels peter out during the 1980s. It's only around 1990 that "holiday" begins a steady surge in popularity, while "Christmas" doesn't trend so noticeably up or down. By 1999, the two are used equally frequently, with the occasional year where "holiday" actually beats "Christmas."

The two words are complements rather than substitutes -- their movement patterns basically mirror each other's, rather than a rise in one causing a fall in the other. It's just that over time the gap between them shrinks to the point where both are equally common:

Sometime during the mid-to-late 1970s the gap starts to steadily close. This is unlike the other cases where the shift began in the mid-1990s, and I have no good guess about why this case is so different. It's probably because we need to look at a case where the two words would be substitutes, forcing the user to pick one or the other. That's typically what the "War on Christmas" people mean when they talk about the phrase "Happy Holidays" replacing, not merely being said alongside of, "Merry Christmas."


  1. Off-topic, but since you like Stan Liebowitz and dislike file-sharing I thought you'd also like this story. It's not quite "news", but new to me at least.

  2. Heh, yeah you can read Liebowitz's summary of the whole affair at his SSRN page. That was pretty big in my formation of opinion about Mr. Freakonomics.

  3. I believe this trend is tied to the decline of catholicism/christianity and increased political correctness.

    Up until I started working, I always used the term "Christmas". A few years in, an older co-worker mocked me when I used the phrase, saying "I don't think he'll have a 'merry christmas',he's Jewish".

    Since then I switched to using "holiday" and only use "christmas" when I know the other person is catholic/christian -- which for strangers or simple acquaintances is hard to know.

    That the term started declining in the 70's-80's is perhaps telling.

    I believe a simple look at TV shows, advertising and other mass media can illustrate this is also when political correctness started to become the norm. (i.e. Archie Bunker like content went the way of the dinosaur)

    This is also a time when I would think catholicism/christianity as a religion started going down hill in the U.S.

  4. Although it is clear that the term "holidays" can be used to avoid saying Christmas, so as not to offend non-Christians*, I don't think this necessarily accounts for every usage of the word.
    For one thing, people tend to use (near)synonyms in their speech, just to avoid repetition. It is a very basic element of good style in writing.
    Another possible factor in using "holidays" could be the term used in the first language of the speaker. If an American was brought up speaking, say, Polish or Hungarian it would benatural for him to say "happy holidays" - and no-one can accuse the Poles of not being religious. This usage might then be passed on to future generations.

    I'm just speculating here - and should disclose that I am British - I assume the topic here is really "Decline of Christmas in the USA." It certainly is in decline in England too - but then again not many of us are really Christians. More agnostic, if anything. Also we Brits wouldn't consider using "happy holidays", as it is seen as an americanism. Thats not to say we wouldn't tread carefully when wishing an "Asian"** colleague a "nice..errr...break".

    *I am a bit confused by rightwingnut's term Catholic/Christian - surely Catholics are a type of Christian?

    **Incidentally, "Asian" in the UK almost always means of Indian/Pakistani descent (South Asian), and not East Asian.


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