WITH Thanksgiving barely behind us, the trappings and trimmings of Christmas are quickly on the horizon. It seems like Christmas comes earlier and earlier each year, with catalogs, store displays, seasonal music, and other festivity upon us even before December makes its often blustery appearance.
The secular Christmas has its place - and the spirit of the occasion tends to promote goodwill among people of all faiths.
But what about the true meaning of Christmas? Is there a lasting devotion to the religious values that characterize this season? Or does spirituality fade as the cr`eches are packed away?
Reports during the past year show some contradictions as to commitment, but there are definite positive signs.
Devotion to religious values is up - but churchgoing and church giving are down.
Individuals and families polled by Gallup and others indicate that spirituality is bringing them renewal but that there are still signs of a primary quest for material things.
The embracing of religious values translates into different political and social views for some.
For instance, some believe that school prayer and capital punishment for violent criminals are divinely willed, as is the outlawing of abortion. Others take exactly the opposite view on these issues, often on biblical or moral grounds.
There is more agreement among those committed to religion on resistance to drug use and rejection of sexual promiscuity.
A new report from the University of Missouri on church attendance in rural America may be more significant in concept than its limited scope.
Actually, this is an update of 30 years of research of religious practices in rural Missouri townships. Findings of Profs. Edward Hassinger, John Holik, and J. Kenneth Benson show that churches in non-urban areas have survived as well as, if not better than, other institutions, such as businesses and schools. And this comes in the face of limited financial resources and often a lack of full-time clergy.
One might draw the conclusion that the quest for spirituality is greater in the country than in the city or even that urbanization undermines commitment to God. Some sociologists make a case for this conclusion.
But that is not the point. It is that there is a clear trend of a quest for the deeper, more meaningful things in life.
George Gallup Jr. stresses the importance of addressing the paradox in American society - where, on the one hand, there is strong religious belief, but on the other, there exists homelessness, impoverishment, broken families, and declining moral and ethical values.
He expresses concern that religion may only be skin deep and that this may be a nation of ``assenters'' rather than ``believers.''
This is worth evaluating, and resolving to some extent in individual thinking, as we embark on the Christmas season. It can purposefully be a period of thoughtfulness as it is a joyful one.