The TV Meaning of Christmas

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

I enjoy watching TV, but I also try to be critical of the messages the shows I watch are promoting. Recently at my home we have been playing a game, keeping track of what television shows claim as the “real meaning of Christmas” in their Christmas episodes.

My husband jokes that TV shows want to make Christmas about being with your family, but since many of the shows we want are centered around work or school groups, they pretend the people they work with are their family. Can you imagine if real life was like that? This was perhaps most silly on Glee (a show that pushes the silliness of TV conventions regularly) when a bunch of high school kids leave their own families on Christmas eve to spend time with their teacher/coach.  Community gives this turn a little more credibility this year by making Abed’s mother unavailable to spend Christmas with him, so he needs his friends. 30 Rock makes it about being with your family despite inevitable conflicts, dramas and dysfunction.

While these episodes often share a theme, the variety of things the characters claim Christianity is about is broad. In Glee for example, Finn mentions, “I know Christmas is about forgiveness.” We sort of thought that was Easter. You’ll also hear a variety of other virtues: generosity, joy, tolerance. Christmas specials also have a strong undertone of coming to terms with the past (see this year’s Office special for instance). My sister was recently re-watching the movie Love Actually where one character implies Christmas is about telling the truth.  This range of “real meanings” got me thinking: what do I think the true meaning of Christmas is.

My training in semiotics makes me hesitate to claim there can be such a thing as a “true meaning” since meaning is always constructed culturally, and even if we believe that God grounds the truth, the “meaning of Christmas” is a historically based association between our December celebration and the birth of Christ and what that means for our relationship with God. That academic disclaimer aside, I suppose most Christians can agree that Christmas is about celebrating Christ’s birth.

For me, the birth of Christ means a lot of things, but it especially causes me to contemplate the profound impact of God with us. That is, a God that makes a decision to become like is in order to save us, who saves us through the humility of an infant.  So I guess for me, the TV shows are only a little bit off. Christmas IS about togetherness; but it’s about togetherness with God. God’s immanence through Christ is a whole lot more significant than a TV cast gathered for a culminating moment around eggnog or the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, but it certainly is something that could cause a Grinch to look on others with a bit more compassion or generosity. How could anyone not respond to the profound humility of God in a baby in first century Bethlehem?

In other words TV Christmas has left me surprised by its nearness to Christian theology, and unsurprised by what a profound difference the person of Christ makes for Christianity. A non-specific presentation of Christmas gives us the nice but far from radical idea of family. Add a God who walked among us and Christmas becomes something life-altering.

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