Not Much Behavior Change during Christmas, Survey Finds

Unlike what most people expect, most Americans do not dramatically change their lifestyle during the Christmas season, according to a survey that examined five seasonal behaviors.

While shopping, spending time with family and donations do change significantly around the Christmas season, other behaviors such as attending church, listening to Christmas carols, drinking, and feeling lonely or depressed did not have a striking change during the holiday.

In terms of church attendance for Christmas, there is an expected increase in the number of attendees, but not from the expected crowd, according to the survey. While people may expect a large turnout of CEOs – Christmas and Easter Only attendees – the Barna study found that most of the increase in attendance is expected from regular churchgoers.

One out of five adults say they will attend more religious services at a church, synagogue or other place of worship during the holiday season than they normally would. But the group that was most likely to say that was regular attendees (27 percent) rather than those who don't normally attend service (4 percent), the study found.

In other findings, one out of five adults (18 percent), said they would definitely donate more money to their religious center during the holidays than at other times of the year. Evangelicals are the most likely group to donate (30 percent), followed by African Americans (29 percent) and Catholics (24 percent).

Out of the five behaviors explored in the latest Barna Group survey, the only one that a majority of people said they change during the holidays is listening to Christmas carols in their home.

Six out of ten American adults (59 percent) said they will definitely listen to carols this holiday season, with evangelicals being most likely to do so (82 percent).

Among the non-born again population, 50 percent said they will play carols at home, including one-third (34 percent) of atheists and agnostics.

Interestingly, there was a racial correlation for Christmas carols: 63 percent of whites, 55 percent of African Americans, and 48 percent of Hispanics and of Asians said they would listen to carols at home.

But the holiday is not a joyful time for everyone, with a small but significant percentage of Americans saying they would struggle with loneliness or depression during this season.

The group that was most likely to suffer with loneliness or depression was downscale adults, or individuals whose annual income is less than $20,000 and those who did not attend college. More than one out of ten (11 percent) said they would definitely face depression or loneliness during the Christmas season, according to the Barna study.

Evangelicals and atheists were among the people least likely to have these emotions and experiences, with less than one percent of each group saying they would struggle with these unwanted emotions.

"The holidays are an especially difficult time for people who are not connected to the world through a community of faith or through other civic attachments," commented George Barna, founder of the research firm that conducted the survey. "People who are generally detached - as indicated by their not being part of a faith community, not being registered to vote, or typically feeling isolated or lonely - find the holidays to be especially depressing."

He added that joyful activities such as carols, attending holiday parties and participating in religious events seem to just "heighten the sense of isolation" for detached individuals.

"This is a large swath of the population; roughly one out of every eight adults feels as if he or she is on the outside looking in," Barna noted.

In the past, religious holidays were a time to invite non-Christians to church, but nowadays churches and religious institutions are "not seen as safe or value-adding places by most outsiders," said Barna.

"They see little reason to attend seasonal events, especially since those events often highlight their outsider status," he said.

The study also found that some Americans expect to drink more alcohol during the holidays. Those most likely to drink are people under 25 years old (12 percent), atheists and agnostics (11 percent), and liberals (11 percent).

The survey is based on telephone interviews with a random sample of 1,203 adults across the United States from November 1 to 5, 2008.