THE argument over whether multiculturalism and modernity are eroding the Christian character of Christmas is a cherished annual ritual. A bit like snowball fights, the Christmas culture wars are acted out with gusto by all participants, with a low (if not negliglible) risk of any real hurt being inflicted, or of anything really changing.

President Donald Trump is a combatant with passion. He once declared that he had told his wife not to patronise stores which wished customers a politically correct “Happy Holidays” instead of celebrating the Christian festival. Reintroducing the allegedly “banned” expression “Merry Christmas” was one of Mr Trump's electoral promises, and through the year he has been warming people up for a Yuletide just like they used to know.

At a rally in Florida on December 8th he gave the Nativity a new twist by linking the Saviour’s birth to a very topical issue:

Let me begin by wishing each and every one of you a very Merry Christmas...I can think of no better Christmas present for the American people than giving you a massive tax cut.

And in the comedy show Saturday Night Live, Alec Baldwin mischievously sent up the presidential version of Christmas by donning a Trump hair-piece and declaring:

The war on Christmas is over…It will soon be replaced by the war with North Korea...Just in time for Christmas, we’re about to give Americans the biggest, fattest tax cut they’ve ever seen...It might even make me a real billionaire. It’s my greatest achievement.

As you would expect, the White House greeting card now being dispatched pointedly includes the words “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”. By contrast, the winter messages sent from the White House last year featured a more generic wish for happy holidays (like those of many recent incumbents).

The Trump White House is not completely averse to using the H-word. Its end-of-year parties, including one for the press corps, were billed as “holiday receptions”. And the president’s daughter Ivanka, who follows Judaism, defied her father by wishing “happy holidays” to her friends and fashion-brand customers.

By comparison, Barack Obama did issue several Christmas messages for 2016 that were remarkably focused on events in Bethlehem, albeit artfully including a multi-faith dimension. Take this one, proclaimed while lighting the Christmas tree:

As we retell the story of weary travellers, a star, shepherds, Magi, I hope that we also focus ourselves on the message that this child brought to this Earth some 2,000 years ago, a message that says we have to be our brother’s keepers, our sister’s keepers; that we have to reach out to each other, to forgive each other...It’s a message that grounds not just my family’s Christian faith but that of Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, non-believers, Americans of all backgrounds.

Inclusive messages like that will always upset some people, just as exclusive ones do. In 2005, religious conservatives reacted with dismay to a Christmas card dispatched by George W Bush which carried the words “Best Wishes for the Holiday Season.” The editor of a conservative website said he would throw the card straight in the bin.

But it seems such passions are gradually dying down, despite the president's best efforts. According to a study by Pew Research, a polling organisation, some 32% of Americans would rather have stores, businesses (and presumably the White House) wish them a “Merry Christmas” while 52% have no preference between those words and “Happy Holidays”. In 2005, some 43% definitely preferred a Christmas wish, while a fractionally greater 45% didn’t mind either way.

Whether you call it benign neutrality or sullen indifference, the “don’t mind” camp has gained a clear advantage. The proportion which favoured “Happy Holidays” has risen only a little, from 12% in 2005 to 15%. Even among Americans without spiritual affiliation, that fast-expanding cohort known as religious nones, 72% are equally happy with a Christmassy salutation or a neutral one. The share of self-identified Christians who prefer “Merry Christmas” has fallen over 12 years from 47% to 41%. Even among reliably conservative white evangelicals, the “Merry Christmas” bloc has shrunk from 72% to 61% of respondents.

All-inclusive wishes are not some recent, devilish invention. It was a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, who introduced the generic words “Season’s Greetings” to the White House card in the 1950s, albeit combined with a wish for Christmas. That dovetailed with his belief that it was important for the nation to have religious beliefs but that it didn’t matter which specific ones. The idea of Christmas as a unifying celebration for the whole country is a relatively late development in American history. It was only in 1870 that President Ulysses Grant declared it a national holiday. In early America, some strict Protestants did not celebrate the Nativity at all, while Catholics, Episcopalians, Moravians and Lutherans had their own ways of marking the event.

Whether it is seen as a cultural festival, a spiritual event or both, Christmas is still very popular in the United States. This time last year, a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, another pollster, found that 89% of Americans planned to celebrate the Christian Nativity, compared with 3% for the Jewish festival of Hannukah, another 3% for the winter solstice, and 1% for the African-American festival of Kwanzaa. Only 4% were such Scrooges that they planned no rejoicing at all in December.

All this suggests that the bigger a cultural phenomenon becomes, the wider the range of meanings. Ordinary people seem to get that. Zealots don’t.