Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is getting back into the Christmas spirit.
Two years ago, the discount chain substituted the word "holiday" for Christmas references and encouraged store greeters to do the same, in line with other retailers' removal of "Christmas" from advertising and stores.
Now, after criticism from religious groups, Wal-Mart is getting back in the spirit. For the first time, the Bentonville, Ark.-based merchant is bringing Santas into its 3,407 stores. And the retailer has set up a Christmas Shop in each of its 1,500 outlets with garden centers.
"This is still a nation where the majority of the people consider themselves Christian," said Patricia Edwards, a Seattle-based portfolio manager at Wentworth, Hauser & Violich.
Last month, Lowe's Cos., the home-improvement chain, apologized for referring to "Family Trees" instead of Christmas trees in a catalog.
Wal-Mart on Friday broadcast a Christmas concert it produced by the Salvation Army brass band and its own choir that will air in stores along with remarks from Pastor Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose-Driven Life."
The chain also has been offering photos with a Santa Claus free of charge on weekends. For families who can't afford pictures with department store and shopping mall Santas, the photos are "absolutely a huge traffic draw," Edwards said.
Retailers are vying to draw shoppers burdened by defaults on mortgages and higher food and fuel costs. Customer visits this year have declined at Wal-Mart compared with 2006.
More references to Christmas, spokeswoman Christi Gallagher said, is "really just a direct response to what our customers have told us" in comments to store managers and through other channels.
Wal-Mart resumed using the word "Christmas" in stores and advertising in 2006, a year after the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights started a boycott in response to the retailer's approach to the holiday.