It’s that time of year again—that time when people put up trees in their houses, visit relatives we don’t plan on seeing for at least another year, and gather ’round the television for the plethora of Christmas specials invading our regularly scheduled programming. Most of these specials have a common theme: the true meaning of Christmas. But the thing is, we can’t seem to agree on what that meaning really is.
If you were to ask me, a Catholic Christian, what the meaning of Christmas was, I’d have a quick and easy answer for you: Jesus! Christmas is the holy day where we celebrate the birth of Christ. It’s the birthday of the man we believe is God incarnate. Theologically, it’s a huge deal for us, because without God becoming human, there would be no possibility of salvation. And because God’s a baby, we attach all kinds of warm fuzzy feelings to the day. Over a couple of millennia, what probably was a springtime birth in a relative’s house turned into a wintry event in an innkeeper’s stable. So Christians as well as secular celebrators have attached all kinds of ideas and traditions to Christmas that, although they may not be historically factual, are still no less important to us and how we celebrate the holy day.
A Charlie Brown Christmas is one famous Christmas special that blatantly embraces a very Christian “real meaning of Christmas.” In it, Charlie Brown gets frustrated with all the commercialism he sees during the Christmas season. Lucy suggests he try to direct the Christmas Pageant. After his attempts to get a fat, green fir Christmas tree fail, Charlie shouts with desperation, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Linus calmly responds, “Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” He moves to center stage, asks for “lights,” and recites Luke 2:8–14, the Bible passage where an angel appears to the shepherds and announces the birth of their savior. Even among all the other Christmas traditions, Christ is the real meaning and point of Christmas.
But plenty of other famous Christmas specials have mined some other, somewhat more secular, meaning from Christmas. All sorts of virtues and values are represented. I’ve chosen a “top three” that seem to come up most often.
The first is generosity. “It is better to give than to receive” is one of the most popular themes of Christmas. It’s probably the one virtue best personified by the tradition of Santa Claus and all the Christmas stories about him. We see one man’s journey to generosity in Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. All sorts of interpretations of this story exist, from the one starring Patrick Stewart to the one filled with Muppets. But the plot remains the same: Ebenezer Scrooge is a stingy, cold-hearted rich man who keeps all of his money for himself, giving his employees the absolute bare minimum compensation and work conditions that he can get away with. On Christmas Eve, he is visited by three spirits (Christmas Past, Present, and Future), and for the first time sees the full consequences of his actions. Scrooge’s heart is softened, and in the “spirit of Christmas” he becomes a generous man.
Thankfulness naturally follows generosity as a theme for the real meaning of Christmas. Generosity is usually tied with the many gift-giving traditions of Christmas, but some don’t have enough to supply the basic necessities of life, let alone give special gifts to others. So Christmas isn’t just a time for giving gifts to others, but for “counting your blessings,” or being thankful for the good things in one’s life. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a good example of this Christmas theme. The evil Grinch steals all the Christmas gifts, food, and decorations from the town of Whoville in hopes of stealing Christmas itself. But much to his surprise, on Christmas morning all the Whos come out of their houses and sing a joyful Christmas song. The Grinch learns that “maybe Christmas… means a little bit more” than all the trappings and gifts. The Whos of Whoville are still able to be joyful without their gifts, and this melts the Grinch’s heart. He brings everything back, and is given the honor of carving the Roast Beast.
Finally, human dignity, or the value of a person no matter how small, is a popular meaning of Christmas. This is the theme of the perennial Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. The story begins on Christmas Eve, with a depressed and suicidal George Bailey. His Uncle Billy lost an $8,000 deposit, effectively bankrupting his Building and Loan company (this is 1946, after all). His family and friends’ prayers for him reach Heaven, and an angel named Clarence is assigned to his case. Clarence shows George an alternate universe where George hadn’t ever been born. We see that without George, the rich, miserly Mr. Potter has taken over the town and populated it with sleazy nightclubs and generally amoral people, rather than the “wholesome” small town folk George knows. His friends are poor, his family is destitute, and his brother is dead. George realizes that his life, which didn’t seem like much, was actually quite a wonderful life. Despite his financial troubles, he agrees to “be alive” again.
Happy to be alive, George comes home, where the authorities are waiting to arrest him. As he walks in the door, news of his financial troubles has made its way through the gossip grapevine and everyone in town offers to give him whatever cash they have to help him. George’s friend Sam offers him a $25,000 line of credit via telegram. Even though George’s company is saved, he had already learned the real value of a human life while he still faced destitution and the ruin of his life’s work. Financial success isn’t what brings a person value; people have value because they are people, and kindness and selflessness are the measure of a person.
As we see here, there are many Christmas television specials that offer some kind of commentary about the real meaning of Christmas. While I could be a grumpy Christian and assert that Christmas really belongs to us, in the many spirits of the holiday I venture to say that Christmas has different meanings for all sorts of people. If my holy day can be a source of goodness and joy for others, then that’s certainly something to celebrate.