NEW YORK -- For a significant number of Americans, Christmas has largely lost its religious meaning, becoming an occasion focused instead on visiting family and friends and exchanging gifts, according to a new survey released Wednesday.
Only half of people who responded to a Pew Research Center poll said they considered Christmas a religious holiday, even though nearly three-quarters said they believed Jesus was born to a virgin. One-third said they viewed Christmas as a cultural celebration.
Church attendance will be higher than usual during the holiday. But of the 69 percent of respondents who said they attended Christmas worship services as a child, only 54 percent will do so this year. By contrast, 86 percent say they will gather with extended family or friends and will buy gifts for them.
The survey is the latest to measure the gulf between many Americans and religious life. About 20 percent of Americans overall say they have no religious affiliation, a figure which is expected to rise among younger generations.
The Pew Christmas study found a similar trend. While two-thirds of people age 65 and older consider Christmas religious, only 40 percent of adults under age 30 agree. Eight-in-10 non-Christians will celebrate the holiday, but mostly as a cultural celebration. A separate Pew poll found about one-third of U.S. Jews had a Christmas tree at home last year.
Not surprisingly, Christians who more closely identify with a faith are more likely to view Christmas as religious.
More than 80 percent of white evangelicals consider the holiday religious, compared to 66 percent of white Catholics and 60 percent of black Protestants. Fifty-six percent of white Protestants from what are known as mainline churches consider the celebration more religious than cultural. About half of Hispanic Catholics consider Christmas more religious than cultural, but in several Latin American countries the holiday is customarily celebrated on Epiphany, which falls on Jan. 6.
The survey of about 2,000 people was conducted from Dec. 3 through Dec. 8 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percent.