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    What America Thinks
    The Favorite Time of the Year

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, Dec. 22, 1997

    Of course it's the season to be jolly. How do you know for sure? You can check your calendar, or listen to the radio or page through our morning newspaper, fat with holiday ads. I, however, prefer to check the polls.

    Every year about this time, whether we're naughty or nice, there's a new crop of polls out measuring Americans' attitudes toward Christmas and the holiday season.

    Now, just barely in time for Christmas, those spirited folks at the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut have compiled the best of recent holiday surveys and published them in the latest issue of The Public Perspective.

    Of course those surveys find that Christmas is the public's favorite holiday. More than eight in 10 surveyed by Roper Starch Worldwide ranked it as one of their top two or three favorites, followed by Thanksgiving, the choice of half of those interviewed. (For the record, America's least favorite holidays include Father's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Hanukah and Martin Luther King's birthday; each of which was cited as a top favorite by fewer than 5 percent of those surveyed.)

    It shouldn't surprise that Christmas warms the cockles of our hearts. Eight in 10 respondents agree that Christmas brings out the best in people," according to a survey last year conducted by the Tarrance Group and Lake Research. Nearly as many say that Christmas rejuvenates me."

    Still, it's not all dancing sugar plums during the holidays. Half of those interviewed by the Gallup Organization said they felt "anxious" during the Christmas season. A third in the Tarrance/Lake poll agreed that Christmas can be a lonely time of year for me." Among those most susceptible to the holiday blues: older people, single or divorced people, childless couples and less affluent Americans. Still, big majorities of each of these groups said they weren't lonely during the holidays.

    Americans celebrate Christmas in much the same ways. The Tarrance/Lake poll found that 77 percent said they exchanged gifts, 75 percent attended a family gathering, 72 percent decorated a Christmas tree and 70 percent decorated their homes. Twenty-two percent said they usually went caroling (perhaps after sipping a wee bit of eggnog at those holiday parties – just to warm the throat, of course).

    Amid all of the gift-buying, partygoing and carol-singing, Americans said they still find time to go to church. Sixty-three percent of those questioned in the Tarrance/Lake survey said they attended a religious service during the Christmas season, while slightly fewer – 58 percent – said they attended Christmas parties.

    In fact, Americans expected to devote about 16 hours to holiday shopping this year, or nearly the same amount of time they said they will spend attending religious services, according to a just-released national survey conducted by Yankelovich Partners for the insurer Lutheran Brotherhood.

    Americans do worry about how we spend Christmas. Two thirds of those interviewed in the Tarrance/Lake holiday surveys acknowledged that they focused on the material aspects of Christmas" rather than on the religious or spiritual aspects of the holiday. Half of all Americans said Santa Claus and gift-giving detract from the religious celebration of Christmas; three in 10 said it had no effect; and two out of four said Santa and gifts enhanced the celebration.

    Overall, eight in 10 say that Christmas now is more a commercial than a religious holiday, while one in six say it's primarily a religious celebration, according to a survey by Opinion Dynamics.

    The Roper survey summary suggests that Christmas polls find that the public is overwhelmingly supportive of allowing Christmas nativity scenes and carols in public schools during the holiday season. Just eight percent in a Princeton Survey Research poll said they opposed such displays and activities, while more than nine out of 10 expressed support – and 46 percent said they strongly felt that nativity scenes should be allowed in public schools.

    Actually, there are few places where Americans don't want Christmas decorations displayed. The Tarrance/Lake survey found that nine in 10 respondents said such decorations were appropriate in churches, public schools, public parks, stores and office buildings. The one location where Americans expressed modest reservations about decking the halls: government buildings. Still, eight in 10 said it was at least somewhat appropriate for these buildings to be decorated for the season.

    Most pet owners include their cats and dogs in the festivities. A Gallup survey found that nearly two out of three dog owners said they gave their pooch a Christmas present. And nearly six in 10 cat owners said they did, too.

    And yes, Virginia, nearly all of us do believe in Santa Claus – at least until we're 8 years old. Surveys conducted over the last 10 years consistently show that fewer than 5 percent of all Americans said they never believed in Santa Claus.

    Those surveys also asked the age at which the respondent stopped believing. The average response: 8 years old, though about one out of eight Americans keeps the faith with Santa until they're nearly 10, according to polls conducted by The Washington Post and by Tarrance/Lake.

    How do most of us find out Santa's a fraud? Friends tell us or we "figure it out for ourselves," according to the Post survey.

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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