WASHINGTON (AP) -- There's no mistaking President Donald Trump's "Merry Christmas" message -- he wields it as a weapon against political correctness.
For weeks, he's been liberally sprinkling his public remarks with Christmas tidings. And then pointing it out in case anyone fails to notice.
Trump has long promised that this year would be different after what he saw as a trend toward giving the Christian celebration short shrift in favor of a more generic and inclusive "happy holidays" message.
"Well, guess what? We're saying 'Merry Christmas' again," Trump announced in October at a Values Voter Summit of conservatives.
For all of that, though, it turns out the 2017 holiday rhythms at the White House are similar to those of years past.
The president participated in the annual lighting of the National Christmas Tree. The house has been decked out for the season with an array of traditional trimmings, including the longstanding crche in the East Room. There has been a whirlwind of parties --- roughly 20 receptions and more than 100 open houses, including a reception to mark Hanukkah.
"It is as beautiful as it has always has been. It is as special as it always has been," said Anita McBride, who served as first lady Laura Bush's chief of staff.
The White House holidays under Barack and Michelle Obama also included plenty of Christmas trappings and cheer. Obama offered a more general holiday message on the official greeting card, but wished "Merry Christmas" at the National Tree lighting, on his Twitter account and in his weekly address.
Trump has expressed concern about a diminished "Merry Christmas" message for years. In 2011, he criticized Obama's approach, saying on Twitter that the president had "issued a statement for Kwanza but failed to issue one for Christmas." In fact, that year Obama wished people "Merry Christmas" from his Twitter account and gave a video address with his wife in which he wished people a "Merry Christmas and happy holidays." Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also offered greetings marking Kwanza, the weeklong African heritage festivities in December.
The White House said Trump will also have a statement on Kwanza.
At the official lighting of the National Christmas Tree this year, Trump offered an overtly religious message, noting that "for Christians, this is a holy season." He added that the "Christmas story begins 2000 years ago with a mother, a father, their baby son, and the most extraordinary gift of all, the gift of God's love for all of humanity."
But his predecessor also made remarks grounded in Christian traditions. At his final tree lighting, Obama opened with "Merry Christmas," and spoke about this being a time to "celebrate the birth of our Savior, as we retell the story of weary travelers, a star, shepherds, Magi." He went on to discuss the message of the holiday, saying that it "grounds not just my family's Christian faith but that of Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, non-believers--- Americans of all backgrounds."
Asked if the White House thought the previous administration did not acknowledge Christmas, first lady Melania Trump's spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said, "We are focused on our administration."
Trump's emphasis on Christmas has been welcomed by evangelical Christians who see it as evidence of his commitment to religious liberty.
Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, said Trump "has talked about it more frequently and with more intensity."
Conservative angst over a perceived shift away from "Merry Christmas" has long percolated. Former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly talked about the "war on Christmas" on his show for years, highlighting businesses that opted to say "Happy Holidays."
"Among the conservative Christians, they really do feel embattled," said Mark Alan Smith, a political science professor at the University of Washington. "They have a sense of 'we're being persecuted.' This Merry Christmas thing is part of it."
Jeffress, who attended holiday events at the White House this year, said Trump's Christmas comments were one of many moves supported by evangelical Christians, who have cheered as Trump appointed conservative judges, sought to weaken rules governing political activity by religious groups that received tax exemptions, and declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel.
"I believe a lot of Christians see his willingness to say Merry Christmas as the proxy for religious liberty," Jeffress said.
But critics say Trump is using Christmas as a cudgel in cultural warfare.
"This is like kneeling during the national anthem," said Dan Cassino, a political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Cassino, who has polled and written on the issue, said there's no real downside for Trump in keeping up the Christmas talk.
"People who believe it is important feel much more strongly than people who feel you should say Happy Holidays," Cassino said. "The people who are opposed feel much less strongly."
Still, Trump's efforts became a punch line on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" recently as Alec Baldwin portrayed a festive Trump wishing people a "Merry Christmas."
He added: "You can finally say that again, because the war on Christmas is over. It will soon be replaced by the war on North Korea."