Last week 55 people from this area responded to the question, “When you hear the word ‘Christmas,’ what are the first five words that come to your mind?”

The words mentioned most often are listed below in the order of frequency along with the number of times each was cited in parentheses.

 Family (27)

Jesus/Christ (24)

Gifts/Presents (16)

Christmas Tree (13)

Snow (11)

Santa (10)

Peace/Peacefulness (9)

Christmas Music/Carols (7)

 Not only did people say family most often, but if you include words like togetherness and grandparents, the total jumps to 39. That’s an example of how tricky it was to analyze the responses.

Another example of the difficulty in making sense of what came to people’s minds is that Midnight Mass per se was mentioned only three times, but if you combine those two words with words like church, pray, a holy day of obligation, Christmas music, and Jesus, the total soars to 54.

I was a little surprised that Santa was only referenced 10 times, and even when you add words like presents, Christmas tree, and ornaments, all together the gift giving part of the holiday was mentioned 57 times, about the same as the religious side. 

On the subject of gift giving, words like commercialism, materialism and overpriced came up 10 times. Other negative terms included stress, hectic and aggravation.

Many people said words like festive, celebration, parties, happiness and cheer—not religious terms exactly but more a reference to a holiday spirit, if you will.

What also surprised me was that each of the following was mentioned only once: loneliness, lost and sad, because the combination of days with not much sunlight—Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)—and unrealistically high expectations for a holly jolly Christmas often set folks into an emotional tailspin. I read in Psychology Today that a North American survey reported that 45 percent of respondents dreaded the holidays.

Some interesting responses included ‘underwear.’ I thought about that one and decided that’s what the woman found under the tree when she was a child. Another “word” was Santa’s beard. I puzzled over that one until I remembered that the man—who has a great white beard and beautiful white hair—dresses up as the jolly old elf every Christmas.

So, what are we to make of all the numbers? The Pew Forum conducted a survey on religious life in America in 2012 and found that the percentage of atheists, agnostics and unaffiliated people has risen to about 20 percent of the population, but that the United States is still a relatively religious nation. The report states, “This large and growing group of [non-religious] Americans is less religious than the public at large on many conventional measures, including frequency of attendance at religious services and the degree of importance they attach to religion in their lives.”

The report goes on to say, “However, a new survey finds that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68 percent). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58 percent), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37 percent), and one-in-five (25 percent) say they pray every day.”

My small, very unscientific survey confirms the Pew Foundation’s findings. If I were to create a profile of “average” Forest Park residents’ attitudes toward the holidays, I’d say that 

1. They look forward to being with family.

2. They want to include God in their celebration—many in traditional ways but a growing number in spiritual but not religious ways.

3. They enjoy the Santa and gift giving part of the holidays, but don’t like the creeping commercialism they see and feel.

Personally, I could resonate with many of the responses. I am saddened by the creeping commercialism and secularization I see, but at the same time admit to still putting up a Christmas tree and often sitting in the dark with only the tree lights on, trying to evoke that warm Christmas spirit. I try not to go overboard on spending for presents but do enjoy getting small gifts from friends. Worship is still the highlight of the season for me, but I also know all the words to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”

The complete tally can be found on my blog Religion and Ethics. 

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