Canadians see Christmas as a national treasure

There are few times in the year that seem to excite Canadians more than the Christmas Holiday Season. It produces no end of pilgrimages. People do everything they can to “be home for Christmas Day,” taking as much time off work as possible, often travelling long distances at considerable expense, battling tough weather, frequently sacrificing sleep.

Dr. Reginald Bibby says that Canadians experience their greatest levels of happiness during the Christmas season.

Those who cannot make it to the place where family and friends are gathered used to settle for phone calls and, if all else failed, dreams. These days, growing numbers will simulate being there via an array of video possibilities, while making sure they spend some the day with valued friends – or even temporary friends. Few songs are written about people spending Christmas alone.

So why all the effort? What’s so special about being with family and friends at Christmas? The Angus Reid Institute recently put the question to some 1,500 Canadians. A few findings are predictable; others are not.

People across the country are virtually unanimous in saying that what makes Christmas so special is the opportunity to be with family and friends. That translates into happy and enjoyable atmospheres, and a unique time when people – almost magically – are particularly upbeat with one another, where “the norm is nice.” Such is the nature of “the Christmas spirit.”

A large majority also see such times as special because they provide the opportunity to share in valued family traditions, underlined by the common presence of people who span generations. We go all out to make sure the celebrations include grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins who surface only twice or once a year. That alone makes the occasion special.

When we looked at specifics about what is particularly meaningful, Christmas dinner (56 per cent) was cited by more people than gifts (26 per cent). There’s something special about gathering around the table. A few people might miss some of the gift-openings. But dinner will not start without them.

The survey further documented the ongoing importance for some 50 per cent of Canadians of the religious and spiritual components of Christmas. That includes the annual surfacing of the “Christmas Onlys" - primarily Roman Catholics and Protestant Mainliners, doubling service across the nation to about 40 per cent from the normal 20 per cent.

But beyond “family and friends” and “fun and faith,” the survey found two other things that are particularly noteworthy. First, while Christmas is typically associated with a lot of commotion, no less than 3 in 4 people say the time provides “a breather from everyday life. Close to the same proportion further report that it offers an opportunity “to emerge refreshed.” Such sentiments are highest among younger adults.

Second, Canadians tell us that Christmas and the Holiday Season also is a time of considerable reflection. Precisely because the past meets the present in safe relational settings, people are giving a lot of thought to where life has been, where it is, and where it is headed.

More than 50% say they will be thinking about Christmases past and people no longer here. Similar numbers expect to be reflecting on where their lives are, the things that bring them joy as well as strain, and some things they might want to change.

In short, the cultural and personal significance of "the season" goes well beyond its readily visible social, commercial and religious characteristics. Christmas is also an important time of national reflection.
As a closing question, we asked Canadians how happy they generally consider themselves to be. Some two in ten said they are “very happy” and about six in ten “pretty happy,” with less than two in ten describing themselves as “not very happy” or “not happy at all.”

Yet, this month, as we get together with family and friends, our happiness levels will rise to levels which, for most of us, will be year-long highs – if only for a week or so. No less than 88 per cent of the survey participants told us that what makes the holiday so special is that “Christmas spent with loved ones simply adds much to my life.”

That seems to be the primary reason that people will be “home for Christmas.” Its impact on our lives is simply too important to miss. As such, Christmas is a national treasure.

Angus Reid is a sociologist and one of Canada’s best known pollsters; in October 2014 he founded the Angus Reid Institute (ARI) Reginald W. Bibby holds the Board of Governors Chair in Sociology at the University of Lethbridge; his decades-long trend-tracking is now focusing on the future of life in Canada -