WASHINGTON (AP) - A bluebird in the garden, a spirit in a house, a kind man on the side of the road. Americans are big believers in angels, although not necessarily the ones with halos and wings.
An overwhelming majority, almost regardless of backgrounds and religious convictions, think angels are real, according to an AP-AOL News poll exploring attitudes about Santa Claus, angels and more.
Belief in angels, however people define them, is highest — almost universal — among white evangelical Christians, 97 percent of whom trust in their existence, the poll indicates. But even among people with no religious affiliation, well more than half said angels are for real.
Among the findings about angels and Santa:
• Protestants, women, Southerners, Midwesterners and Republicans were the most likely to believe in angels, although strong majorities in other groups also shared that faith. Belief in angels declined slightly with advanced education, from 87 percent of those with high school education or less to 73 percent of those with college degrees. Overall, 81 percent believed in angels.
• 86 percent believed in Santa as a child. And despite the multiethnic nature of the country, more than 60 percent of those with children at home consider Santa important in their holiday celebrations now.
• Nearly half, 47 percent, said Santa detracts from the religious significance of Christmas; over one-third, 36 percent, said he enhances the religious nature of the holiday.
• 91 percent of whites believed in Santa as a child; 72 percent of minorities did. One quarter of those now living in households with incomes under $25,000 did not believe in Santa.
The poll of 1,000 adults was conducted by telephone Dec. 12 to 14 by Ipsos, an international public opinion research company. The margin of sampling error for all adults was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
If it's one thing to believe in angels, it's something else to explain exactly what an angel is.
"A presence that you feel around you, is my opinion," said Elizabeth Daves, 63, of Flemington, N.J. "I accept them — to come whenever they want to." And she said they came, and have comforted her, since her mother-in-law died in their house.
Edward Pelz, 80, of Grabill, Ind., said he believes that angels are guiding him, even though it's impossible to explain to anyone else.
"Have I ever seen one? Nope. We depict an angel as a person that's white, has a robe on, has wings on back. I'm not sure that's the way they look. So for me, I think sometimes there's angels that aren't that way."
Pelz recounted a story about a man who showed up to change his tire when he had a flat in Ohio five years ago.
"I look at life — I say, well maybe I had an angel with me here today. It could have been just another man doing a good deed."
Although Santa took knocks in the poll for diminishing the religious nature of the holiday, some grown-ups who considered him a benefit to the season cited the spirit of selfless giving that he represents.
"Now, if you are using Santa Claus to push a $100 robotic dinosaur, then that's a problem," said Ron Montgomery of Louisville, Ky. But the 64-year-old grandfather counts himself as a Santa believer to this day.
"It's the whole atmosphere," he said. "Santa Claus is the spirit. The trees, the church, the whole works. You actually see more of your neighbors.
"It's a feeling. It's not like a ghost. It's an attitude."
Pelz felt another spirit when he walked into his backyard on a winter's day — that of the wife he lost over two years ago. He called her Mom.
"She loved bluebirds," he said. "In the wintertime, we don't have bluebirds. I was out in the back, thinking, 'Mom I'd like to see you,' and this little bluebird comes by.
"I don't know, maybe that's an angel. It was just something I wanted to see. Maybe I imagined it. Next thing you know, it flew off. What is an angel? Is an angel something that has a heartbeat like us? Or is it ...?"
The thought trailed off.
AP writer Nancy Benac, AP's Manager of News Surveys Trevor Tompson and AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this story.
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