The (True?) Meaning of Christmas
It's nice to know that in our commercialized society we have at least one holiday that revolves entirely around religion, not around profit-hungry businesses trying to get a firm grip on our wallets and pocketbooks. Right? I mean, Christmas is still all about the birth of Jesus Christ, isn't it? I guess it all depends on who you listen to. Take it from a kid who grew up in a family that never went to church and never stressed religion much at all. What I learned about Christmas in the early part of my life came from watching television specials and commercials. TV as a learning device can be pretty dangerous. I would like to describe a few of my more memorable experiences as well as why they may have been so important to me.
Christmas was always a big event in our family. We always spent Christmas Eve with my father's family and Christmas Day with my mom's. There was always a lot of food and many gifts, but for the first four or five years of my life, I had no clue what we were celebrating. I really don't think I cared too much, being a young child caught up in all the excitement. And I had something to call it. Christmas. That's all I really needed until I stumbled upon a Christmas special on television entitled A Charlie Brown Christmas. I must have been four or five years old at the time, I can't remember for sure, but I don't think I had started kindergarten yet. But I know I was curled up in a Sesame Street sleeping bag in front of our old television set, one of the older models with an oak veneer finish that sat on the floor instead of in an entertainment center like TV's do now. Another thing that sticks out in my mind very clearly is something that seems very unusual to me now. Thee was something missing. There was othing sitting on top of the TV set. We didn't have a VCR yet! In 1999 I would be very surprised to walk into a friend's house with some Blockbuster rentals and find out that he or she didn't have a VCR. Anyway, back to Charlie Brown. Towards the end of the program, Linus (one of the cartoon characters) makes a speech about the true meaning of Christmas. He talks about how Christmas isn't about who has the biggest tree or who wins first place in the lights and decorations contest. He says that Christmas is about the baby Jesus and Joseph and Mary. This was brand new to me. I had always felt he same about Christmas as I did the 4th of July or Halloween. I knew it was special; I just didn't know why.
After listening to this, beiang the typical curious kid that I was, I proceeded to ask my parents about what I had just heard. You know the drill, "What's a Jee-zus? Who's Joseph 'n' Mary? Why did they go see those three men?" You get the picture, right? Now the next part is where my parents attempt to explain to a kid who has no concept of who or what God is, that Jesus is the son of God. You know the next question already, don't you? Cheater! "Mom, who is God?" Following an attempt at an explanation of that cane a plethora of questions and answers that eventually led to a very confused little boy. Was I better off "knowing" what I now "knew"? I'm still not certain of that. If ignorance is bliss, then knowledge is... well, knowledge was confusion in this case. But that particular media experience changed the way I thought about Christmas for the rest of my life. I at least understood that there was ore to it than presents and canndy canes.
My second very vivid memory of Christmas and my actions being linked to television comes from an advertisement that I saw on television for the Sears: Wish Book, the store's annual Christmas catalog. I was either in first or second grade when I saw this on TV. I used to get home from school evry day and sit down to watch GI JOE and TRANSFORMERS, two of my favorite cartoons. On one of these occasions I saw a commercial with a little boy sitting on the couch in between his parents with the Sears catalog on his lap. He was showing them, page by page, what he wanted for Christmas. In the next scene, the boy wakes up on Christmas morning to find that he has gotten every toy he asked for. This commercia, as I'm sure it was intended, inspired me to ask my mom if we had a catalog. When she gave it to me, I proceeded to write out the most elaborate Christmas list you could imagine, complete with catalog page number. How convenient, right? Sure, for Sears!! Now, all prospective gift givers had to do was call and order right from the catalog. What a pawn I was! Looking back on this, I get an excellent perspective on how businesses think of the Christmas season. Just a lot more of these: $$$$$$$$. It also makes me cringe to see how overcome I was with greed, just because I wanted what that kid had on TV.
Television and the media in general seem to be constantly bombarding us with ways to spend our money during the holiday season; however, this next TV Christmas special did quite the opposite. Watching this program actually put the idea that giving is better than receiving and that you don't have to spend a lot of money, because it really is the thought that counts. This is a lesson I have remembered and kept with me for the last 12 years. Its going to sound silly when I tell you the name of the programbut here it is anyway: Garfield's Christmas Special. See, I told you it sounded silly, but it really is a good story about a very greedy cat who is somehow overcome with the Christmas spirit. In search of something special to give his family, Garfield rummages around the garage in search of an idea. While out there, he stumbles upon some old love letters from "Grandma's" deceased husband, as well as some materials to build a backscratcher for his canine "friend", Odie. The old woman who received the letters was overcome when she received this bundle of memories, and Odie goes to town scratching on his new backscratcher. Sure, its just a cartoon, but 7 years afterwatching that cartoon, I found myself in a position to do something selfless for another person. I was 16 years old, working a Christmas tree lot for some spending cash to buy gifts for my family and friends, when I encountered a woman from my community who I knew to be very muh down on her luck. Her son had played on my brother's baseball team for years, when suddenly he couldn't play because she had lost her job and just couldn't afford the fees. On this snowy, bitter cold day, her daughter was begging her to buy a gorgeous Balsam Fir tree that was standing tall in the middle of the lot. Even though I was only 16, I was not too naive to see the embarassment in her eyes as she stood in front of me, the tree salesman, and explained to her young daughter that she could not afford this particular tree. Politely as I could, I offered to show her the Scotch Pines, a much more affordable tree, and told the girl how much better the branches were for hanging ornaments. But she didn't care. She still wanted a bigger, fuller tree.
The woman chose a modest Scotch Pine, so I pulled off the tag and told her to see the cashier inside the building and that if she pointed out her car, I'd be happy to tie down her tree while she waited in line. She went into the building to pay the $12.50 for her tree. By the time she came out I had both "netted" the tree and tied it to the top of her Monte Carlo. And as she drove away with her new BALSAM FIR Christmas tree (with a note attached that simply said "Oops!), I walked towards the cashier, not once regretting that I would have to pay the remaining $33.50 for the happy smile that this Christmas tree was going to put on that girl's face, not to mention her mother's. So go ahead and make fun of me for my cartoon watching habits as a nine year old, but watching Garfield's Christmas Special was one half hour well spent. The final episode that I want to discuss is one that almost everyone is familiar with. Yes, you guessed it, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. This movie has been on television so many times that I can't pinpoint exactly when I saw it first.n Just to take a stab at it, it was probably about 8 or 9 years ago, maybe 1990-91. But almost everybody has seen this movie at some point or another. In this movie, the "hero", Clark Griswald, is trying to make sure his family enjoys "the most fun-filled old-fashioned family Christmas ever." This Christmas includes 25,000 "twinkle lights", a tree that's too big to fit into the house, lots of presents, and a fight between boss and employee over a Christmas bonus that almost didn't happen. This is one of the more commercial ways that Christmas has been portrayed. While it is a very funny movie, sadly it very closely resembles the way people think about Christmas.
As much as I hate to admit it, the media has had a pretty strong impact on the way I feel about Christmas. I must say that although the religious importance was not stressed too much on TV, I have come away with a fairly balanced feeling about the holiday. To me it is about heartfelt love, giving and selflessness. That is the true meaning of Christmas to me. But there is a flip side to this coin. I also enjoy the lights, decorations and seeing young children tear into thier gifts with a twinkle in their eyes and smiles on their faces. I feel very fortunate to have seen some of the programs that I watched as a kid. I feel perhaps even more fortunate to have missed some others. There are other people who come away with a far different attitude than mine. Media is very strong. I'm glad that I can now look at it in terms of what it is and what its being used for as opposed to believing everything I see on TV.