Are companies caught in “war” over holiday?

Executive Summary

From shopping malls to office cubicles, the religious tradition of the Christmas season is steadily disappearing as businesses try to avoid alienating customers or employees. Companies are caught in a cross fire between those on both sides of what some have called a “war on Christmas.” Civil libertarians, atheists, evangelicals and others are battling over nativity scenes, seasonal decorations and what constitutes an acceptable holiday greeting, and even President-elect Donald Trump has weighed in. The weapons wielded in the conflict include boycotts, public pressure campaigns and lawsuits.

Amid the clamor, some of the key takeaways include:

  • A growing number of businesses view the prospect of being pressured over Christmas-related issues as a potential threat.

  • Even seasonal traditions such as the company holiday party and year-end bonuses have been caught up in the controversy.

  • Although some retailers are pushing back against the frenzy of “Black Friday,” most consumers still like the day-after-Thanksgiving kickoff to the holiday shopping season.

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Bowler, Gerry, “Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday,” Oxford University Press, 2017. The author of “Santa Claus: A Biography” and “The World Encyclopedia of Christmas” chronicles the tug-of-war over Christmas by tracing the holiday’s history from the original Christmas Eve to the present day.

Gibson, John, “The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought,” Penguin Books, 2006. Conservative Fox News Radio host John Gibson warns readers that the so-called war on Christmas is heating up and blames secular liberals for prolonging it through litigation, protests and threats.

Harvey, Robin and Meyers, Stephanie (editors), “The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas,” Harper Perennial, 2010 Forty-two atheist scientists, comedians, philosophers and writers contributed to this collection of essays about how nonbelievers can enjoy the holiday season.

Palin, Sarah, “Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas,” Broadside Books, 2013. The former Republican vice presidential candidate calls for putting Christian values back into the Christmas season and stresses the importance of acknowledging the birth of Jesus in public displays and school concerts.


“An employers’ guide to Christmas: office parties, religious discrimination and bonuses,” Personnel Today, Dec. 2, 2010, The U.K.’s largest free-access human resource website offers tips for employers as they decide how to handle year-end parties, bonuses and decorations.

Friedersdorf, Conor, “Christmas Is Kicking Ass in the War on Christmas,” The Atlantic, Dec. 20, 2013, An Atlantic magazine staff writer reviews the history of the debate between Christians and atheists over publicly displayed religious symbolism during the Christmas season.

Henninger, Daniel, “The Year Christmas Died,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 23, 2015, The newspaper’s deputy editorial page director laments the absence of Christmas symbols, both secular and religious, in the holiday window displays of New York’s most iconic department stores.

Honan, Daniel, “Penn Jillette: There’s No War on Christmas. Let’s Just Spread the Joy, Man!” Big Think, November 2015, The magician and comedian takes a tongue-in-cheek look at the battle over Christmas and advocates saying “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas.”

Thornton, Bruce, “The Stakes In The War On Christmas,” Hoover Institution, Dec. 16, 2015, A research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution says that the “war” on Christmas “is really a war on religion.”

Reports and Studies

“America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center, A nonpartisan “fact tank” reveals that the Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not consider themselves members of any organized religion is increasing.

“Celebrating Christmas and the Holidays, Then and Now,” Pew Research Center, In a study of religion and public life, the research center finds that nine in 10 Americans celebrate Christmas, while three-quarters say they believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. About half view Christmas as a religious holiday.

“Holiday Bonus Survey: 78% Will Offer Some Sort of Year-End Gift,” Challenger, Gray & Christmas, On the heels of a U.S. Department of Labor rule that changes salary requirements for overtime pay, the talent management consultancy says 78 percent of companies will offer employees a gift or bonus this year.

“National Retail Federation Forecasts Holiday Sales to Increase 3.6%,” National Retail Federation, Oct. 4, 2016, The world’s largest retail trade association issues its annual forecast for holiday sales in 2016, predicting a 3.6 percent increase over last year’s season.

“SHRM Survey Findings: 2015 End-of-Year Holiday Activities,” Society for Human Resource Management, 2015, The world’s largest human resource professional society tallies membership trends for holiday parties, year-end bonuses, gift exchanges, online shopping during work hours and participation in charitable giving.

“2016 Holiday Party Survey: 80% Having Parties, Scaling Down,” Challenger, Gray & Christmas, An annual survey by the outplacement firm shows that 80 percent of American businesses plan to host a holiday party for employees this year, down from 90 percent in 2015.

The Next Step

Christmas Spending

Coles, Sarah, “The average person spends £1,500 on Christmas – how can we afford it?” AOL, Nov. 21, 2016, An American Express survey found that the average person in the United Kingdom will spend the equivalent of about $1,900 on Christmas celebrations during the 2016 season.

Koehle, Angie, “WalletHub: Holiday spending to hit $656 billion this year, up 3.6 percent from last year,” ABC 15 Arizona, Nov. 14, 2016, U.S. holiday spending is expected to increase to nearly $656 billion this year, with more than one-third of shoppers set to exceed their holiday budgets from last year, according to data from the personal finance website WalletHub.

Wahba, Phil, “About 10 Million More Americans Shopped Online Than In Stores Over Black Friday Weekend,” Fortune, Nov. 27, 2016, An estimated 108.5 million Americans shopped online over the Thanksgiving weekend, more than the 99.1 million who went to stores, according to the National Retail Federation.

Seasonal Marketing

Coffee, Patrick, “Amazon’s Touching Interfaith Ad Appeals to the Better Angels of a Divided World,” AdWeek, Nov. 18, 2016, Amazon brings religions together with its new holiday ad, which features an Anglican vicar and a Muslim imam as friends despite spiritual differences.

Dillet, Romain, “Apple’s holiday ad is all about inclusion,” Tech Crunch, Nov. 21, 2016, Apple’s latest holiday advertisement, featuring a lonely Frankenstein’s monster whose appearance is ultimately accepted, focuses on inclusion during the season.

Halzack, Sarah, “Target’s plan to win Christmas: ‘10 days of deals,’ more Spanish-language ads, and a musical with John Legend,” The Washington Post, Oct. 25, 2016, Target announced plans to bring back its “10 days of deals” promotion, offer free shipping and include more Spanish-language advertisements as part of its holiday marketing tactics.


“Starbucks brings back traditional Christmas designs,” The Associated Press, CBS News, Nov. 9, 2016, Following outrage last year over Starbucks’ minimalist red holiday cups, the coffee retailer is returning to decorated holiday cups for the 2016 season.

Rowe, Dominique, “Why Starbucks’ Christmas Cups Are Special This Year,” Fortune, Nov. 10, 2016, Starbucks’ 13 new holiday cups feature seasonal designs created by 13 women from six countries to “express the shared spirit of the holidays.”

Taylor, Kate, “Furious customers are accusing Starbucks of ‘political brainwashing’ over green cups,” Business Insider, Nov. 3, 2016, Some customers expressed anger when Starbucks released new “unity” cups, mistaking them for the annual holiday cups and accusing the coffee chain of having a liberal bias and being anti-Christmas.

War on Christmas

“Christmas Day declared public holiday in Victoria after Government backflip,” Australian Broadcasting Corp., Nov. 24, 2016, The small-business minister in the Australian state of Victoria reversed a decision not to make Christmas Day a public holiday after a backlash from the federal government and unions.

Huriash, Lisa J., “Plantation loses lawsuit against family over massive Christmas display,” Sun Sentinel, Oct. 28, 2016, The city of Plantation, Fla., lost its court fight against a local couple and their Christmas lighting display, which the city said drew excessive crowds and created a public nuisance.

Steingart, Jon, “Jehovah’s Witness Says Firing Was for Not Saying ‘Merry Christmas,’” Bloomberg, Nov. 16, 2016, A Jehovah’s Witness alleges religious discrimination in a Tennessee lawsuit, maintaining he was fired for refusing to wish customers a merry Christmas at his job.


Alliance Defending Freedom
15100 N. 90th St., Scottsdale, AZ 85260
A Christian legal organization that advocates for religious freedom, the sanctity of life and marriage and family by funding cases and training attorneys.

American Atheists
PO Box 158, Cranford, NJ 07016
An organization that defends the civil liberties of atheists and advocates for the absolute separation of government and religion.

American Center for Law and Justice
PO Box 90555, Washington, DC 20090
An international organization that litigates cases involving the free-speech rights of abortion foes and the constitutional rights of religious groups to have equal access to public facilities.

American Civil Liberties Union
125 Broad St., 18th Floor, New York, NY 10004
Nearly 100 years old, the ACLU defends and seeks to preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and U.S. law.

American Family Association
P.O. Drawer 2440, Tupelo, MS 33803
A pro-family Christian organization promoting a culture based on biblical teachings.

Freedom From Religion Foundation
P.O. Box 750, Madison, WI 53701
A nonprofit organization that promotes the separation of church and state and seeks to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

National Retail Federation
1101 New York Ave., N.W., Suite 1200, Washington, DC 20005
The world’s largest retail trade association, representing discount and department stores, home goods and specialty stores, Main Street merchants, grocers, wholesalers, chain restaurants and internet retailers in 45 countries.

Society for Human Resource Management
1800 Duke St., Alexandria, VA 22314
The world’s largest association for human resource professionals, representing 285,000 members in more than 165 countries.

14040 N. Northsight Blvd., Scottsdale, AZ 85260
A membership organization for human resources professionals that bills itself as “the total rewards association.” Its focus is compensation, benefits and work/life effectiveness.

DOI: 10.1177/237455680224.n1