By Steve Hollinghurst.

On 21st December 2011 The Daily Star ran the headline Simon Cowell ‘is Messiah’. This was reporting a survey for children asking them about Christmas run by Woolworths online retailing. The full article can be found here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2076523/Christmas-meaning-lost-1-4-children-believe-25-December-Simon-Cowells-birthday.html.

The article states:

“The survey of 1,000 school children aged between five and seven years old reveals that 36% don’t know whose birthday we celebrate on December 25th – with over one in five believing the festivities are in aid of Simon Cowell’s birthday.

Only 28% of children named Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus. One in four thought it was Brentwood, home to the TOWIE stars, while a quarter believed it was 10 Downing Street or Buckingham Palace. And the poll of 1,000 schoolchildren carried out by Wollworths.co.uk showed they were just as clueless when it came to Santa.”

OK, this is not exactly the most serious article, but what does it really tell us?

Firstly, more of the results are present than the headlines suggest, but never do we see all of them. As far as I could find, the results, and crucially the questions, have not been made available; we only have a press release.

Secondly, there is some creative writing. One in four is a quarter, and is of course 25%. So when asked where Jesus was born, the top answer was Bethlehem – yes only 28% said this, but that was more than the 24% who answered Brentwood in Essex, and the further 25% who were split between 10 Downing Street and Buckingham Palace, leaving 22% for whom we don’t know the answer. You might be forgiven for having missed that thanks to the way the headline emphasised the TOWIE home figure.

Thirdly, there are some absent figures. 36% didn’t know whose birthday we celebrate at Christmas, and 22% said it was Simon Cowell’s, so what did the other 42% say? Well they may all have said Jesus’ birthday. Judging by the way other results are reported, like the numerous options (with no percentages given) for potential reindeer, I think any other funny options would have been mentioned. So it could well be that 42% said ‘Jesus’, but we haven’t been told. If so might that be because that spoilt the story? ‘Nearly half of 5 to 7 year olds know Christmas is Jesus birthday compared to 22% who opted for Simon Cowell’ is just not so much fun. Similarly 35% hadn’t heard of Rudolph, including the 10% they mention who thought David Beckham, Tulisa, Pippa and Barack Obama were the reindeer. We are not told what the other 65% put implying that perhaps they had heard of Rudolph (See the article for more details).

After all this we are left with two pieces of real information. Many children have sufficiently little knowledge of the Christmas story to pick the right answers in a multiple choice survey. Perhaps more concerning is that the boss of Woolworths thinks the Christmas story is about Santa and his reindeer, which is why the biggest shock for him is that 35% haven’t heard of Rudolph. But then perhaps we should remember that the point of this survey is not to inform but create a press release with the hope of selling lots of children’s toys. And we all know who brings those…

This is not the first survey to suggest that many children don’t know the Christmas story; other more serious studies have shown that most do not. But why are these children, remember they are 5 to 7, in such a muddle? It might be because of the questions they were asked. Surveys are not like the type of exam question where you leave a space for the answer; they have to be multiple-choice with a ‘don’t know’ option and not too many choices or they produce far too may different answers to be measurable. 22% of these Children thought the 25th of December (and note this also suggests they were given the date and not told that it was Christmas day) was Simon Cowell’s birthday because they were given it as a multiple-choice option; the same goes for all the ‘other bonkers suggestions’.

Ask a silly question and what should you expect?

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