Tags: Christmas | Traditions | Shifting | but | Spirit | Strong

Christmas Traditions Shifting, but Spirit Strong

Saturday, 24 December 2005 12:00 AM

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The sending of Christmas cards has fallen off.

Singing carolers are seldom heard anymore.

And sales of real Christmas trees are on a long-term decline.

What does all this mean?

One Christmas-oriented organization based in Missouri believes the traditional spirit of Christmas is waning. The National Christmas Tree Association, a group of tree growers based in St. Louis, conducted a poll this year that shows fewer people participate in old-fashioned family customs like caroling and even baking treats than a decade ago.

"We've lost the real meaning of Christmas," said Beth Walterscheidt, a Texas tree grower who leads the new Christmas Spirit Foundation established by the tree association to promote family-oriented holiday activities. "We're a family-oriented country, and we want to preserve that."

Yet Christmas traditions are far from dying. The tree growers' poll also found those who decorated their homes, played Christmas music or gathered with relatives remained steady or grew slightly.

And in some respects, the Christmas spirit may be healthier than ever, just shifting.

Holiday travel and retail sales during the season climb just about every year. One of the newest trends in radio is the "all-Christmas" song format, spreading holiday cheer continuously.

"Maybe some particular traditions are changing, but I see a real spirit of generosity," said the Rev. Michael Roach, whose St. Therese North Church in the Kansas City area operates a St. Vincent de Paul social-service agency for the poor.

Nevertheless, the tree growers' poll trends add another octave to the voices of concern across the country that Christmas is under siege.

A new book out is titled "The War on Christmas." Some Catholic groups and the California-based Committee to Save Merry Christmas have organized boycotts of stores that wish their customers a "Happy Holidays" instead of a "Merry Christmas." And several Christian legal groups are taking schools and cities to task for removing religious songs or displays.

The tree association's Christmas traditions polling was done by Harris Interactive, which repeated questions from a poll done in 1996 for U.S. News & World Report magazine. This year's survey was conducted online with 2,012 adults. Harris then weighted their responses to reflect U.S. population demographics to achieve a 3 percent margin of error.

For the most part, the 2005 responses revealed that many staples of family Christmas celebrations were in decline.

A decade ago 20 percent of respondents said they went caroling, but only 5 percent did it now. Those who said they went to a holiday concert or play fell from 45 percent to 29 percent. The proportion of people who said they baked holiday treats decreased from 73 percent to 62 percent. Attending holiday parties and sending out Christmas cards also dropped.

Why might such symbols of Christmas be fading a bit?

It might be part of a larger societal shift. Sociologists have bemoaned America's declining "civic engagement" - socializing or connecting outwardly with others. And the declining Christmas traditions, whether going to holiday parties or baking treats, typically involve interacting with others outside the home.

"It fits into that pattern," said Stephen Nissenbaum, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts and author of the book, "The Battle for Christmas." "The polling data suggests that what people are doing less of are things involving public engagement. Our society is increasingly turning inward."

The Christmas trends might also be a matter of simple demographics.

Digging further into the poll numbers, the tree association found traditional Christmas activities were more likely to occur in larger households, such as the traditional nuclear family of two parents and kids. Yet those same families are on the wane. Nuclear families have plummeted from 45 percent of all households in 1960 to 24 percent in the last census.

In their place are more singles and older empty nesters, or people in smaller households less likely to participate in family-oriented Christmas traditions.

Larry Pfaff, an equipment salesman who is single and lives in the Kansas City suburb of Prairie Village, Kan., knows an orchestra conductor for "The Nutcracker" ballet. But he has never seen it himself.

"It's something I'd do if I had a wife or girlfriend," Pfaff said. "Being single, I really don't think about it."

Other societal shifts may play a role in changing Christmas traditions, too. There are technology advances, such as the availability of pre-lit artificial trees with needles that look increasingly real. Plus, there are our increasingly busy lives and the always-growing number of leisure-time options that were not widely available a generation ago, from gambling boats to surfing the Internet.

"People are so busy these days, they don't have time to invest in that experience like they once did," said Buzz Warren, who operated a large Christmas tree farm in the Kansas City area before selling much of the land to a subdivision developer last year. "It's sad, you know."

No matter the reasons, the tree association's poll numbers seem in line with other available data. Consider Christmas cards. In national Gallup Polls, the proportion of Americans who said they sent out Christmas cards declined from 76 percent to 68 percent during the 1990s. And total sales of Christmas cards have dipped from 2.5 billion in the late 1990s to 1.9 billion now, according to Hallmark Cards spokesperson Linda Odell. Then there's old-fashioned caroling. Independence Manor nursing home in Independence, Mo., had a group come in and sing to its elderly residents this week, but carolers in general are showing up less frequently than even last year. "We really haven't had that many," said Michelle Weaver, an activities assistant there.

Finally, tree growers had their own reasons for studying Christmas trends. Their total sales are down almost 30 percent from their peak in the mid-1990s, according to the tree association's annual surveys. And the spread between households with fake trees and those displaying real trees has tilted so much toward artificial now that the association no longer keeps track of it.

Bradley Crosser can relate. For years when his daughters were little, he took them out to a far-flung farm and sawed down a real Christmas tree. But the girls are teen-agers now, and he stopped by Seasonal Concepts off Barry Road last week to pick out a slim artificial Tennessee pine.

"The girls said they'd get real trees when they get their own house, and I said, `Go right ahead,"' said Crosser, a mortgage loan officer for Bank of America in the Kansas City area. "It's a pain after a while."

These days, singing "O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree" might as well include the line, "Can you believe what's happening?"

In response to the declining Christmas trends, the national tree association held the first-ever Christmas Traditions Summit this year, with some 20 representatives of holiday-oriented businesses. Tree growers commiserated with portrait photographers and shopping mall Santas, among others, about what they called a "major erosion" of traditions.

The association also is waging its culture war on the Internet, offering a game on its Web site called "Attack of Mutant Artificial Trees," in which elves hurl snowballs at fake trees that snarl "Bah, humbug!" and "Christmas is canceled" as they pop out of boxes.

"We'd like to see some of the trend numbers turned around," said Steve Drake, the tree association's chief executive.

For sure, there are still lots of ways that old-fashioned traditions live on today.

Christmas music is not just heard in stores and churches anymore - the number of radio stations in the nation's top 100 markets playing "all-Christmas" songs increased 14 percent just between 2003 and 2004, the latest years available, according to Edison Media Research. Plus, the number of Americans traveling 50 miles or more during the holiday season will likely set another record this year, according to the Travel Industry Association of America.

And plenty of church pastors can point to ways that their parishioners demonstrate the traditional values of Christmas.

St. James Catholic Church in Kansas City, for instance, typically has an Advent Tree on which each ornament lists the name of a family or individual in need. This year, the church added ornaments to include friends in the violence-scarred city of Juarez, Mexico. No matter, parishioners provided gifts for every name.

"The giving tree is stronger than ever," said Ross Beaudoin, a deacon and the church's pastoral administrator.

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The sending of Christmas cards has fallen off. Singing carolers are seldom heard anymore. And sales of real Christmas trees are on a long-term decline. What does all this mean? One Christmas-oriented organization based in Missouri...
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Saturday, 24 December 2005 12:00 AM
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