Beliefs Culture

Guardians of ‘Christmas cred’ reap publicity, donations, struggle with Cyber Monday

Shoppers cross 34th St. in Herald Square in the Manhattan borough of New York, on November 24, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brendan McDermid *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-CHRISTMAS-BOYCOTTS, originally transmitted on Nov. 25, 2015.
Shoppers cross 34th St. in Herald Square in the Manhattan borough of New York, on November 24, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brendan McDermid *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-CHRISTMAS-BOYCOTTS, originally transmitted on Nov. 25, 2015.

Shoppers cross 34th St. in Herald Square in the Manhattan borough of New York, on November 24, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-CHRISTMAS-BOYCOTTS, originally transmitted on Nov. 25, 2015.

(RNS) December is fundraising season, the time when nonprofits hit the airwaves, Internet, social media and good old snail mail with their most distinctive give-to-us pitches.

And for a few groups, those pitches are all about campaigns to enforce the words and images of “Christmas” in the public square. They seek to steer consumers toward retailers and brands that blare “Christmas” –- emphasis on “Christ” — in advertising words and images. The campaigns continue even though, with the advent of Cyber Monday and online shopping, it’s hard to monitor consumer behavior.

Actually, these Christmas credibility campaigns, such as the Starbucks red-cup-no-“Christmas” flap, don’t move consumers, experts say. They sometimes jar corporations to tweak ads to protect their brand image. But they might score big on media attention, which can translate into donor dollars even if there’s not a measurable dollar’s worth of difference in national consumer behavior.

“Consumers are extreme examples of habit-forming people. We like what we like. And we rationalize that our one purchase is not going to have a huge effect. Even if we say we support a boycott, when push comes to shove, we do what we always did in the past,” said sociologist Brayden King, professor of management and organization at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

READ: Starbucks’ red cups, and the Internet outrage machine (COMMENTARY)

The more subtle measures of success for such campaigns, such as the American Family Association’s annual “Naughty or Nice” list, is the ability to sometimes shift corporations that want to avoid negative media attention, said King.

For eight years, the AFA has highlighted “Christmas-friendly” companies and cast a Scrooge shadow on those that don’t measure up. Even if a chain store carries what are clearly Christmas items, if these are not labeled, promoted and advertised under the C-word, the company is dinged for banning Christmas -– i.e., banning Christ from the public square, in AFA’s view.

“It’s about the birth of Christ, not just another holiday,” said Buddy Smith, senior vice president of AFA. That matters to “Christians who follow the Bible on biblical stewardship and hold ourselves accountable for how we spend our money.”

Smith sees success: the Naughty list this year is the shortest ever. Meanwhile, he said, “Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and Lowe’s, which had gone completely politically correct in not using ‘Christmas,’” have moved to the Nice list in recent years.

Plus, the list has indeed boosted donations to AFA, said Smith. “Why not? People are very benevolent during the Christmas season, when God gave his only son. We get lots of donations from our support base at the end of the year and we count on it.

“Like any nonprofit, we have employees to pay and electric bills. And if people are going to give us money, they want to know if our voice is making a difference,” said Smith.

“It’s the publicity that counts. Every organization wants to show supporters it is doing something on the issue they care about,” said James Jasper, sociology professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and author of “Protest: A Cultural Introduction to Social Movements.”

READ: Poll: Christmas is a commercial holiday, not a sacred holy day, for many

Chris Stone, founder and CEO of Faith-Driven Consumeralso takes an interest in promoting evangelical views with a list of Christmasy companies at, rather than a boycott of those that promote secular seasonal joy.

“Christians and faith-driven consumers are not the same. Only 25 percent of practicing Christians (evangelicals) are faith-driven consumers,” said Stone, who sets their number at 41 million whom he calls “biblically orthodox.” 

This group, he says, is driven by their Christian faith in deciding “where they buy, what they buy and what entertainment they consume.” (The numbers are based on in-house polling by Faith-Driven Consumer.)

He’s launched a new, year-round campaign for this subset of Christians — a comprehensive 100-point Faith Equality Index assessing companies’ treatment of these “biblically orthodox Christians.”

READ: Starbucks faux outrage: When did this “War on Christmas” start anyway?

In this index, high points (and maybe a boost of consumer Christmastime attention) go to companies that hire, promote and accommodate the devout. So a retailer’s Christmas-friendly ads are only worth 5 points while the big points go for overall “engagement, public policy, philanthropy, operations and human resources” that align with conservative evangelical views.

Stone patterned it after similar indexes by the gay-rights oriented Human Rights Campaign, and black and Hispanic groups. In his view, the devout are “marginalized and excluded” in the marketplace and secular society and thus deserve to be “included in any company’s diversity rainbow.” He said companies are paying attention to the index and consulting with him about “transformation,” but he declined to name any companies.

The danger in all these forms of ratings is the potential for backlash, sociologists said.

King observes that “for cultural products such as films and music, boycotts can lead to more consumption, rather than less.”

And sometimes they flop completely. King cited a Christian group that has an ongoing boycott of companies that donate to Planned Parenthood, that gets little mainstream media attention and “could be the least effective boycott I have ever seen.”

Worse, an ineffective boycott led by vocal evangelicals could, instead, reveal how much social clout they have already lost in the wider society, where about 1 in 4 Americans — and 1 in 3 millennials — say they have no religious identity.

Many of these so-called “nones” are pushing back against religious conservatives who wield claims of “religious freedom” to battle social changes they oppose, such as legalized gay marriage or the health care contraception mandate, said Michele Dillon, past president of the Association for the Sociology of Religion and a professor at the University of New Hampshire.

“The highly religious want to rally and remind people they are still here,” she said.


About the author

Cathy Lynn Grossman

Cathy Lynn Grossman specializes in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. She also writes frequently on biomedical ethics and end-of-life-issues


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  • Funny how so many modern Christians are so militant about celebrating the birthday of their religion’s founder, and about making everyone — Christian or not — celebrate it with them. The first Christians, you see (the people who supposedly actually knew Jesus) never did so. Nor did their offspring, nor their offspring’s offspring. It took a couple centuries for Christians to start the practice, and even then it wasn’t universal, especially because among Greco-Roman Christians, celebrating birthdays (anyone’s at all) was viewed as a very pagan thing to do. The earliest known celebration of Jesus’ birthday was in 336 CE and mentioned in an annal recorded c. 20 years later.

    So it’s a mystery to me why Christians today view their Christmas-worship as being crucial to their religion, when centuries of Christians had gone by before any of them even had dreamed up that holiday. It just doesn’t make any sense.

  • When I see a business which favors one faith I wonder why it isn’t mine. Such blatant religiousity seem inappropriate in the marketplace, one which includes a lot of folks like me.

  • Ditto…and a major reason I don’t celebrate it at all! It’s the most-commercialized, besides pagan and “man-made religious tradition” that is unnecessary and burdensome for the many who can’t afford it. I am so grateful and happy as a result!

  • Besides that, the angel who told the shepherds in the field (who would not have been out in the fields in the winter at that time) did not bear Jesus, the baby at the manger, any gifts (Luke 2:8-20).


    “Do not learn the ways of the nations!
    For their practices are worthless;
    they cut a tree from the forest,
    They adorn it with silver and gold;
    they fasten it with hammer and nails
    so it will not totter.”

    Yahweh – (Jeremiah 10:2-4)