Christmas: What We Do, How We Spend, and Why it Matters

A Discussion of Social and Economic Trends and Their Environmental Costs

A woman carries three tastefully wrapped gifts. Most of us participate in Christmas gift giving, which creates a lot of waste every year.
Sophie Delauw/Getty Images

Christmas is one of the most widely celebrated holidays by people all over the world, but what are the particularities of it in the United States? Who is celebrating it? How are they doing it? How much are they spending? And how might social differences shape our experience of this holiday?

Let's dive in.

The Cross-Religion and Secular Popularity of Christmas

According to Pew Research Center's December 2013 survey about Christmas, we know that the vast majority of people in the U.S. celebrate the holiday. The survey confirms what most of us know: Christmas is both a religious and a secular holiday. Unsurprisingly, about 96 percent of Christians celebrate Christmas, as do a whopping 87 percent of people who are not religious. What may surprise you is that people of other faiths do too.

According to Pew, 76 percent of Asian-American Buddhists, 73 percent of Hindus, and 32 percent of Jews celebrate Christmas. News reports indicate that some Muslims also celebrate the holiday. Interestingly, the Pew survey found that Christmas is more likely to be a religious holiday for older generations. While just over a third of people ages 18-29 celebrate Christmas religiously, 66 percent of those 65 and older do so. For many Millennials, Christmas is a cultural, rather than a religious, holiday.

Popular Christmas Traditions and Trends

According to the 2014 National Retail Federation's (NRF) survey of planned activities for Christmas Day, the most common things we do are visit with family and friends, open gifts, cook a holiday meal, and sit on our bums and watch television. Pew's 2013 survey shows that more than half of us will attend church on Christmas Eve or Day, and the organization's 2014 survey shows that eating holiday foods is the activity that we most look forward to, after visiting with family and friends.

Leading up to the holiday, the Pew survey found that the majority of American adults—65 percent—will send holiday cards, though older adults are more likely than younger adults to do so, and 79 percent of us will put up a Christmas tree, which is slightly more common among higher income earners.

Though hurtling through airports at top foot-speed is a popular trope of Christmas movies, in fact, just 5-6 percent of us travel long-distance by air for the holiday, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. While long-distance travel increases by 23 percent at Christmas time, most of that travel is by car. Similarly, though images of carolers punctuate holiday films, just 16 percent of us join in the activity, according to Pew's 2013 survey

Studies also show that we are getting engaged, conceiving children, and deciding to get divorced more so on Christmas than during any other time of the year.

How Gender, Age, and Religion Shape Our Christmas Experiences

Interestingly, a 2014 survey by Pew found that religious affiliation, gender, marital status, and age have an impact on the extent to which people look forward to the common ways of celebrating Christmas. Those who regularly attend religious services are more enthusiastic on average about Christmas activities than are those who attend less often, or not at all. The only activity that escapes this rule? Americans universally look forward to eating holiday foods.

In terms of gender, the survey found that, with the exception of visiting with family and friends, women look forward to the holiday traditions and activities more than men. While the Pew survey did not establish a reason for why this is the case, existing social science suggests that it could be because women spend more time than men do shopping and visiting with or taking care of family members in the context of their everyday lives. It's possible that mundane and taxing chores are more appealing to women when they are surrounded by the Christmas glow. Men, however, find themselves in the position of having to do things that they are not normally expected to do, and so they don't look forward to these events as much as women do.

Echoing the fact that Christmas is less of a religious holiday for Millennials than it is for older generations, the 2014 Pew survey results indicate an overall generational shift in how we celebrate the holiday. Americans over the age of 65 are more likely than others to look forward to hearing Christmas music and attending religious services, while those in the younger generations are more likely to look forward to eating holiday foods, exchanging gifts, and decorating their homes. And while the majority of all generations do these things, Millennials are the most likely to buy gifts for others, and the least likely to send Christmas cards (though still a majority do it).

Christmas Spending: Big Picture, Averages, and Trends

More than $665 billion is the amount the NRF forecasts Americans will spend during November and December 2016—an increase of 3.6 percent over the previous year. So, where will all that money go? Most of it, on average $589, will go to gifts, out of a total $796 that the average person will spend. The rest will be spent on holiday items including candy and food (about $100), decorations (about $50), greeting cards and postage, and flowers and potted plants.

As part of that decorative budget, we can expect Americans to collectively spend more than $2.2 billion on about 40 million Christmas trees in 2016 (67 percent real, 33 percent fake), according to data from the National Christmas Tree Association.

In terms of gift-giving plans, the NRF survey shows American adults intend to buy and give the following:

  • Clothing or accessories (61%)
  • Gift cards or certificates (56%)
  • Media items (books, music, videos, games, etc.) (44%)
  • Toys (42%)
  • Food or candy (31%)
  • Consumer electronics (30%)
  • Personal care or beauty items (25%)
  • Jewelry (21%)
  • Home decor or furnishings (20%)
  • Cash (20%)
  • Sporting goods or leisure items (17%)

The plans adults have for gifts for children reveal the stronghold that gender stereotypes still have in American culture. The top five toys that people plan to buy for boys include Lego sets, cars and trucks, video games, Hot Wheels, and Star Wars items. For girls, they plan to buy Barbie items, dolls, Shopkins, Hatchimals, and Lego sets.

Given that the average person intends to spend nearly $600 on gifts, it's not surprising that nearly half of all American adults feel that exchanging gifts leaves them stretched thin financially (according to Pew's 2014 survey). More than a third of us feel stressed out by our country's gift-giving culture, and nearly a quarter of us believe that it is wasteful.

The Environmental Impact

Have you ever thought about the environmental impact of all this Christmas cheer? The Environmental Protection Agency reports that household waste increases by more than 25 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, which results in an additional 1 million tons per week going to landfills. Gift wrapping and shopping bags amount to a whopping 4 million tons of Christmas-related trash. Then there's all the cards, ribbons, product packaging, and trees too.

Though we think of it as a time of togetherness, Christmas is also a time of massive waste. When one considers this and the financial and emotional stress of consumerist gift-giving, perhaps a change of tradition is in order?