This is a presentation I made on December 5, 2018, at the sold-out Kevin Geeks Out show at the Alamo Drafthouse Theater, Brooklyn.
Warning: I will be talking about religious matters, and there may be Jesus jokes. I apologize in advance to people of all religious persuasions and atheists alike. Also, I am no religious scholar, so take everything I say with a grain of Christmas salt.
What is the meaning of Christmas?
As you are well aware, the primary source to answer this question is now and always has been…
…the television Christmas special. In fact, via the Christmas special, we may study the earliest known footage of people trying to find meaning in Christmas.
Sadly, these artifacts can tell us nothing of the meaning of Christmas, as they took place one-to-two million years before the birth of Christ. B.C. Birth. Of. Christ.
By the way, legendary comedians Bob and Ray do voices for that BC special, and it is worth a watch.
If you break-down the thematic universe of television Christmas specials you find three major themes, which have become tropes. There is the “origin stories” trope, like Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman…
…and Little Orphan Annie’s A Very Animated Christmas.
Then there is the “saves Christmas” trope, in which Christmas goes to shit and must be saved by Ernest, Elmo, Teen Titans, or the GLO Friends.
Because they’re so small, the GLO Friends ultimately resorted to combining reindeer manure, gas, and propane, exploding the ice prison to free Santa. Only four deer survived.
And finally, the “meaning of Christmas” trope, which is what I will discuss here.
Christmas stories throughout history have touched on the supposed meaning of Christmas, as seen with Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the film It’s a Wonderful Life, and even Seuss’s Grinch book from 1957. But an old cliché is not a modern trope until it’s clearly spelled out for a mass audience, over and over.
Like the house being built on an Indian burial ground,
the declaration of love right before love-interest boards a plane,
or dying just before retirement (or end of enlistment).
So, with that in mind, I’d say the clear origin of “meaning of Christmas” as a trope is the 1965 television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas.
It is the first to bluntly articulate the question:
And while the previous answers to that unstated question had to do with goodwill,
and family stuff,
this time the answer was so different, it was like a televised record needle scratch.
With pure silence as the backdrop, the answer was one full minute of motherfucking Bible recitation. In this story, the meaning of Christmas is simple: Jesus was born, you idiot. Duh.
Even in 1965, this was quite radical. Christmas specials were about Santa. When Schulz’s creative partners, Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez, suggested that it was insane to have Bible verses in a cartoon special, Schulz famously replied, “If we don’t do it, who will?”
Stunningly, approximately eleven months after this daring bombshell of a message, Schulz threw down one even more controversial:
That religion is total bullshit. Spoiler alert: There is no Great Pumpkin.
Charles Schulz actually kind of believed both things. He studied the Bible, but thought going to church was basically a waste of time.
A Charlie Brown Christmas aired on December 9, 1965, and was the first of its kind, but hot on its heels was another television Christmas special that pursued a similar vein:
Davy and Goliath Christmas Lost and Found.
This aired a mere two weeks and two days after Charlie Brown. Sixteen days.
It includes a boy,
his little sister Sally,
and a school play. But there’s more. Here’s a comparison.
Again, I’m no religious scholar, but I would have thought the “meaning of Christmas” itself would steer one away from…
The only real difference between the two is that Davey gives up his role in the play as one of the three kings and gives it to a boy named Kenny, who is from out of town, alone, friendless, and stuck selling trees.
Here’s Davey’s ultimate take on the meaning of Christmas:
So, to sum up: The only thing better than being king is being both king and director—or, even better, God--so that you have the authority to crown some other lowly person.
Because it is never not good to be king. And even Jesus could tell you that. (Oh, wait. Maybe not.)
The next special to explicitly pose the “what is Christmas” question would be 1970’s Christmas Is…
…the title itself demanding an answer.
Amazingly the story consists of a boy,
a school play,
an angry director, and of course:
So, the problem has crystalized.
In this story, Benji is transported by imagination to witness the birth of Christ. Let’s see what he comes up with as far as “meaning of Christmas.”
So, in this case the meaning of Christmas is:
Get over your little spoiled self and just play the fucking shepherd already. Because you’re too old to play Jesus.
Again, I am no religious scholar. I could be wrong.
In 1977, a Canadian special takes a crack at this. From Nelvana, whose founders had worked on Yellow Submarine and eventually created the animated sequence in The Star Wars Holiday Special…
[NB: No sound for this clip.]
…not to mention their biggest success, The Care Bears. (That thing in the end is not a Care Bear).
They released A Cosmic Christmas.
Amazingly, there is no school play in A Cosmic Christmas. There is a boy,
his pet Canadian Goose named Lucy (kind of like a morph of a pet dog and little sister Sally),
and space aliens
Our child hero, Peter, shows the aliens glimpses of everyday life on Earth at Christmastime, and as the humans continually act like jerks, the aliens keep asking, “So is this Christmas?” In the end Lucy is kidnapped by a bully.
So, they never really spell it out, but clearly in this case the meaning of Christmas is:
Don’t let horrible children drown. And feed them if they are starving, even if they stole your pet. It’s the Yuletide thing to do.
So, looking over these purest examples of TV specials that examine the true meaning of Christmas, what can we conclude?
What is the real meaning of Christmas?
Peace on Earth, good will toward men;
love your neighbor as yourself;
and—an important one—love (and try to understand) your enemies.
And as much as we, in this secular age, like to make fun of religion, perhaps a television audience seeing these cute drawings and goofy jokes gets closer than the never-miss-Sunday church-goer to the heart of what it really meant when the big news story of the day would have been a poor family, traveling far from home, with no shelter except a borrowed manger, making due, making family, with almost nothing. Where have we heard that before?
And who could have predicted such a thing?
The answer is Bob and Ray, two million years ago.