Do we still love Christmas?

The British are filled with festive good cheer

December 11, 2014
David Cameron's 2014 Christmas card. © Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/Press Association Images
David Cameron's 2014 Christmas card. © Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Sitting down at home, the lights on an artificial tree twinkling in the corner of the room, about to eat turkey with five family members, and dreaming that Boris Johnson might drop by—that is the quintessential English Christmas, 2014. (Scots are different: they would far prefer Alex Salmond.)

This month’s YouGov/Prospect survey shines a light on our families, friendships and food in the festive season. What emerges is a mixture of tradition and change. Eight out of 10 of us will have Christmas trees in our homes, but the overwhelming majority of these are artificial. Non-religious people—almost half the public—are almost as likely to have trees as Christians who attend church at least from time to time. Only members of other faiths buck the trend—and even among them, almost half will have a Christmas tree.

Our eating habits are remarkably constant. In 1952 Gallup found that 69 per cent were eating turkey or chicken for their main Christmas meal. Sixty-three years later the figure is almost identical: 67 per cent. Gallup didn’t ask separately about chicken and turkey, so the mix may have changed. But the preference of fowl over red meat on Christmas Day remains virtually unchanged.

 Xmas stats:

Boris is the most popular politician to spend Christmas with

Eight out of 10 of us will have Christmas trees in our homes

One in six either don’t know their neighbours at all (11 per cent) or actually dislike them (6 per cent)

Ukip voters are most likely to have given nothing to charity over the past 12 months

What probably has changed is our relationship to our neighbours. We seem to be less close to them than we used to be (or at least, less close than suggested by the general image of neighbourhoods in decades gone by). Just one in three of us regard our neighbours as friends. Almost half of us know them by name but have no strong feelings about them. One in six either don’t know them at all (11 per cent) or actually dislike them (6 per cent). And if bygone days were ones when working class neighbourhoods displayed a special solidarity and friendship, those days have long gone. The figures for middle-class and working-class respondents are virtually identical.

Not surprisingly, older people are the most likely to regard their neighbours as friends: 50 per cent of over 60s, compared with just 23 per cent of under 40s. But this still means that the other 50 per cent of the over 60s know them only by name, or not at all, or dislike them.

There is also plainly a problem of loneliness. One in three of us are visited by friends or members of our family less often than once a month. This is an issue that applies to all age groups, although perhaps matters less to younger, more mobile men and women. (If anything, our figures understate the problem, for some of the most isolated older people are unlikely to appear on the radar of any polling company, whether conducting their normal surveys online, by telephone or face-to-face).

Whether we are a charitable people depends on the height of the hurdle labelled “generosity.” The median figure for the amount of charitable giving over the past 12 months is £22. For the under 25s, the figure is just £9; it rises to £40 for the over 60s. Among church-going Christians, the median climbs further, to £50. One in four such Christians told us they have given more than £200 to charity in the past 12 months, compared with less than one in 10 of the rest of the population.

Among party supporters, Ukip voters are most likely to have given nothing to charity over the past 12 months (16 per cent of them) and least likely to have given more than £200 (9 per cent). For Conservative voters the figures are almost exactly reversed: just 8 per cent have given nothing, while 15 per cent have given more than £200.

As for Christmas Day, it remains a family occasion for the vast majority of us. Fully 87 per cent of us will eat our main meal either at home (57 per cent) or at the home of another family member (30 per cent). And most of us will have company. The median figure is 4.5—one of those glorious statistics from the same abacus that told us the average family has 2.4 children.

If the 0.5 represents the political celebrity of our dreams, it’s Boris Johnson. We gave people a list of eight guests: four party leaders, one ex-party leader (Alex Salmond) and three other prominent politicians. We asked whom people would choose to invite to their home “for a drink or meal around Christmas.” Forty-two percent wisely said “none of them.” But almost half the rest—25 per cent of the total sample—opted for Boris. He was miles ahead of Nigel Farage, whose 8 per cent put him in second place.

Here’s a seasonal indicator of the loyalty of each party’s supporters: the proportion who name their own leader. Ukip/Farage: 37 per cent. Lib Dem/Clegg: 22 per cent (more chose Farage: 24 per cent). Labour/Miliband: 17 per cent. Conservative/Cameron: 17 per cent (but Boris got 45 per cent).

The fact that the Labour/Miliband and Conservative/Cameron figures are the same is surely bad news for Labour’s leader. Cameron was always bound to suffer when his rival from his own party was Boris; Miliband’s rival was Harriet Harman. She attracted only 4 per cent of Labour voters. And, even though she was the only woman on our list, female voters were as averse to choosing her as male voters.

That is my final bit of bad news this year for MPs from what we used to call our main parties. For the little comfort it offers, I think the public are too negative towards them all. I fear that next year’s election campaign will add to the stresses they face. So, alongside my season’s greetings to my readers, may I wish our politicians the merry and restful Christmas they deserve more than most voters think.