Christmas: Where have all the carolers gone?

Army Navy and other military Christmas Carolers

WHO LOVES CAROLING? It’s a long military tradition for men and women serving far from home. These photos, from various years, show (from TOP): U.S. Navy Chaplain Cmdr. Joseph Scordo of Pleasantville, NY, leading Christmas carolers in celebrating the holiday season at a forward operating base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Second, sailors assigned to the guided-missile frigate USS Curtis singing in an annual decorating contest to show holiday spirit. Third, sailors singing carols on the flight deck of the guided missile cruiser USS Monterey. Then, sailors and marines joining in carols aboard the U.S. Navy command and control ship USS Mount Whitney. Finally, a scene of a World War I caroler from the film, Joyeux Noel, about the 1914 Christmas Truce. All military photos are released for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Nine of ten Americans celebrate Christmas, but how we celebrate has changed over the years. If you celebrate Christmas, think back to your childhood: What did you typically do then? Have things changed or stayed the same?

Across the board, the activities typically associated with Christmas—putting up a Christmas tree, buying gifts for friends or family, sending cards, attending religious services, caroling, and more—have declined in frequency, according to a Pew Research Center poll this month. About eight of ten (79%) put up a Christmas tree this year, but 92% recalled doing the same when they were young. Sending cards has fallen, too. Now, 65% of Americans send cards, compared to 81% in their youth.

Just over half of all Americans (54%) say they plan to attend religious services tonight or tomorrow; about seven of ten (69%) said they typically did this as a child. This decline occurs for men and women, for whites, blacks, and Hispanics, for all age groups, and all religious groups except white evangelical Protestants.

Buying gifts for family and friends has also declined, but the decline is small for most demographic groups and categories. No change has occurred for Americans with family incomes of $50,000 a year or more. When it comes to homemade gifts, however, the drop is much larger. For example, 58% of Americans plan to give homemade gifts today or tomorrow, compared with 66% who recall doing the same when they were kids. This decline occurs for all demographic groups and categories, including white evangelical Protestants.


Caroling has fallen off dramatically. Only 16% plan to go caroling tonight or tomorrow. Over a third of Americans (36%) recall caroling when they were kids.

You know who still loves caroling every year? Men and women serving in the U.S. military, that’s who! Every year at military bases and on ships at sea, all around the world, men and women sing Christmas songs. Pew’s sample wasn’t designed to poll service men and women, so we don’t have any hard data on this detail—except the annual stream of caroling photos that we see circulating across the Internet.

Caroling among the military is one way, in situations where no other holiday expressions are practical, to remember home. It’s been that way for a long time. Next year, 2014, will be the centennial of the now-famous World War I Christmas Truce in 1914, celebrated in a number of feature films, including Joyeux NoelThe sound of Christmas carols in the trenches, heard across “no man’s land,” was a key inspiration for that rare moment of peace amid a terrible war.

What are your holiday activities this season?

Do  you have a friend or relative in the military? Are they singing, or listening to, carols this week?

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