Everything I Learned About Christmas I Learned From TV

In 2007 I wrote a series entitled "Everything I Learned about Christmas I Learned from TV." That series has been one of the most popular things I've written and it's been my tradition to post it again every Christmas season. The original series was comprised of three different posts. This year I've pulled them together into a single post. One link and you have the whole thing.

As a child I loved all the children's Christmas shows. Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, Merry Christmas Charlie Brown, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, to name a few. With no videos, cable, NetFlix or DVR these shows were once a year opportunities. If you missed a show, you wouldn't see it again for an entire year.

So, these were BIG events in my childhood.

I was so addicted to these shows that, looking back, I can now discern that everything I know about Christmas I learned from TV. Specifically, I learned from TV three big lessons about Christmas.

Lesson #1: There is Something Special About Christmas
How the Grinch Stole Christmas

The first lesson I learned was from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The lesson was this: There is something special about Christmas. Something that transcended the presents, Christmas trees, meals, or decorations. Christmas, to quote from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, was "a little bit more" than all these things.

If you don't recall the show, here's the basic plot. The Grinch, who lives in the mountains high above Whoville, hates the noise associated with Christmas. So, he dresses up like Santa Claus and ties a horn on the head of his dog Max to make him look like a reindeer. In these disguises they set off for Whoville.

Once in Whoville the Grinch proceeds to steal all the Christmas presents, trees, decorations, and food. He packs all this up and heads back up the mountain just as Christmas day is dawning.

The Grinch's plan is simple. He figures that if he takes away all the Christmas "stuff" the Whos won't be able to celebrate Christmas.

But the Grinch is wrong. In the climactic scene the Who's come out of their homes and, without a single piece of Christmas paraphernalia or presents, begin to sing their Christmas song Welcome Christmas:
Fah who for-aze!
Dah who dor-aze!
Welcome Christmas,
Come this way!

Fah who for-aze!
Dah who dor-aze!
Welcome Christmas,
Christmas Day.

Welcome, Welcome
Fah who rah-moose
Welcome, Welcome
Dah who dah-moose
Christmas day is in our grasp
So long as we have hands to clasp

Fah who for-aze!
Dah who dor-aze!
Welcome, welcome Christmas
Welcome, welcome Christmas Day
Upon hearing the song the Grinch has this realization, and I quote:
So he paused. And the Grinch put a hand to his ear.
And he did hear a sound rising over the snow.
It started in low. Then it started to grow...

But the sound wasn't sad!
Why, this sound sounded merry!
It couldn't be so!
But it WAS merry! VERY!

He stared down at Who-ville!
The Grinch popped his eyes!
Then he shook!
What he saw was a shocking surprise!

Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN'T stopped Christmas from coming!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?
It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
"It came without packages, boxes or bags!"
And he puzzled three hours, `till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store.
"Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"
And this realization has such a profound effect upon the Grinch that his heart, previously two sizes too small, grew three sizes that day.

So, I learned from How the Grinch Stole Christmas that Christmas was more than ribbons or tags. More than packages, boxes, or bags. Christmas was MORE.

But here was the deeply puzzling thing about How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Watch it as many times as you want and it will never be revealed just what Christmas was truly about. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a negative tale. It tells you what Christmas isn't. But it fails, in a quite puzzling way, to tell you what Christmas is.

So as child I was left in quite a quandary. Christmas was clearly very special, but it was still a mystery. Luckily, there was more TV to watch! And a part of the mystery of Christmas would be revealed to me in that quirky tale of a mutant reindeer and his friend, the elf, who wanted to be a dentist...

Lesson #2: Christmas Means Misfits Have a Place
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

After watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas l knew there was something special about Christmas. But How the Grinch Stole Christmas never says exactly why Christmas is special. I got a clue to answering this question by watching that classic Christmas program Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The entire plot of Rudolph centers around misfits. The central misfits are Rudolph and the elf Hermey.

Rudolph, obviously, has some kind of genetic mutation. He's got a red nose and that, well, just isn't natural. So he is shunned, mocked, and excluded from the reindeer games.

Hermey has a different problem. He's terrible at making toys. And he also doesn't enjoy singing in Santa's elf choir. What Hermey really wants to be is a dentist. But for this curious interest Hermey is, like Rudolph, ostracized and made fun of. They are both, clearly, misfits. This is captured in the mournful little song they sing We're a couple of misfits:
We're a couple of misfits
We're a couple of misfits
What's the matter with misfits
That's where we fit in!

We're not daffy and dilly
Don't go 'round willy nilly
Seems to us kinda silly
That we don't fit in.

We may be different from the rest
Who decides the test
Of what is really best?
So Hermey and Rudolph leave Christmas Town and set out on their own.

The misfit theme is continued when Hermey, Rudolph, and Yukon Cornelius, after being chased by The Abominable Snowman, find the Island of Misfit Toys. This is an island where rejected, unwanted, and unloved toys find sanctuary. Rudolph, sympathetic to the plight of the Misfit Toys, because Rudolph knows what it's like to be a misfit, promises to take their plight to Santa. This is the lament of the misfit toys:
We're on the Island of Misfit Toys
Here we don't want to stay
We want to travel with Santa Claus
In his magic sleigh!

A pack full of toys
Means a sack full of joys
For millions of girls
And for millions of boys
When Christmas Day is here
The most wonderful day of the year.

A jack-in-the-box waits for children to shout
"Wake up! Don't you know that it's time to come out!"
When Christmas Day is here
The most wonderful day of the year.

Toys galore, scattered on the floor
There's no room for more
And it's all because of Santa Claus.

A skooter for Jimmy
A dolly for Sue
The kind that will even say, "How do you do?"
When Christmas Day is here
The most wonderful day of the year.

How would you like to be a Spotted Elephant?
Or a Choo-Choo with square wheels on your caboose?
Or a water pistol that shoots -- jelly?
We're all misfits!
How would you like to be a bird that doesn't fly? I swim!
Or a cowboy who rides an ostrich?
Or a boat that can't stay afloat?
We're all misfits.

If we're on the Island of Unwanted Toys
We'll miss all the fun with the girls and the boys
When Christmas Day is here
The most wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful day of the year!
At this point in the show all the misfit themes are coming to a climax. We see misfits seeking community, we see empathy as one misfit identifies with another, and, finally, we see one misfit seeking to act as savior. A misfit to save the misfits. A misfit Messiah.

But the theology of Rudolph takes its most radical, surprising, and extreme turn when the personification of evil, The Abominable Snowman, comes back from death in a quirky resurrection event--Bumble's Bounce!--as a peaceable creature who is also in need of loving community. Apparently, this "evil" creature is also a misfit. And the hint is that he's "abominable" because he's been marginalized and without community.

So, summarizing all this, I learned from Rudolph this important lesson about Christmas: Something about Christmas means misfits have a place, a community, a home. Or, rephrased, Christmas means that there are no more misfits.

But I was still puzzled as a child. From How the Grinch Stole Christmas I learned that Christmas was more than presents and Christmas trees. And from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer I learned that Christmas had something to do with misfits finding a place of love. But in both shows the reason behind it all remained elusive. Why do misfits have a home? And what does being a misfit have to do with Christmas? Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer never says.

So I was quite puzzled. But luckily, there was more TV to watch! And I finally got my answers in a speech delivered by a boy who loved to carry a blue blanket...

Lesson #3: The True Meaning of Christmas
A Charlie Brown Christmas

After the hints about Christmas from the Grinch and Rudolph I finally turned to that trusted friend Charlie Brown.

In A Charlie Brown Christmas Charlie Brown is struggling to find out why Christmas is so depressing. He seeks advice from this local psychiatrist, Lucy, who gets him to direct the school Christmas play.

Well, this doesn't go very well. Eventually, Charlie Brown is rejected as director and asked instead to go buy a Christmas tree for the play.

Most of the symbolism in A Charlie Brown Christmas focuses on the tree he picks out. Out of all the shiny, bright artificial trees Charlie Brown picks a real but forlorn little tree that isn't much more than a branch.

Charlie Brown takes this tree/branch back to the cast and they laugh at both him and the tree. This ridicule pushes Charlie Brown over the edge and he finally screams, "Would someone please tell me the true meaning of Christmas!!!!!" At which point Linus steps forward.

But before we hear Linus's answer, let's reflect on the symbol of the forlorn little Christmas tree. It's a humble little tree, not much to look at. And it's rejected and despised by men. And yet, it is real. All those flashy other trees are dead, cold, and fake. They are empty and hollow. But this fragile little tree is REAL. It's fragile, but real.

And all this taught me that whatever Christmas is about, it is about something that is humble, about something fragile and weak, about something that is despised, marginalized, and overlooked. It is life, it's real, but it's so humble that it is easily overlooked and passed over. Further, its humility makes it a stone of stumbling, a scandal, and a reason for offense.

So, to recap, these are all the lessons I learned about Christmas from watching TV:
I learned that Christmas was MORE and that it had something to do with finding community.
I learned that, because of Christmas, there were no more misfits, no more outsiders or marginalized ones.
I learned about empathy, compassion, and that Messiahs might be misfits.
I learned about how community can be the route for the redemption of evil.
And here with Charlie Brown, I learned that the humility of Christmas makes it oft overlooked and despised.
But to this point in all this TV viewing no one ever connected the dots among all these things. No one had spoken the word that explained just what all this stuff had to do with Christmas. So I perfectly understood why Charlie Brown screamed "Would someone please tell me the true meaning of Christmas!!!!!"

Well, Charile Brown and I finally got our answer. Linus steps forward and explains it all:

May there be peace on earth and good will toward all. Merry Christmas.

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14 thoughts on “Everything I Learned About Christmas I Learned From TV”

  1. Even this posts brings back such memories that it almost brought tears to my eyes. I can't watch either of these, and I do every year to this day, without feeling that there's got to be more to Christmas than what we make it. Thanks for putting this together. It's the first time that I've seen it.

  2. Thank you for such a moving and heart warming post. Growing up in the Church of Christ during the holidays was strange. To hear the message "We can celebrate Christmas at home....but don't" mention it at church", was confusing even for a child who accepted every other "doctrine" without question. The last straw for me about the ridiculous way the holidays were approached came when as a young man I heard an elder once say, "We should have a resurrection of Christ sermon at Christmas and a birth of Christ sermon on Easter to show the denominations we are not bound by their law". I thought to myself, "Law? What law?" That is when I started to realize "Joy to the world, and peace among men" was not exactly what we were about. And oh, how much we missed.

    In the ten or so years following in which I remained a preacher inCoC, I would have to deal with those who objected to the words CHRISTMAS and EASTER being used during a sermon, their point being that neither word was found in the Bible. My response was, "neither is Vacation Bible School; and to be technical about the whole thing, "Easter is found in the King James Version". They would usually argue that the special activity of VBS was different than Christmas and Easter, in that the VBS was used to present "the truth"; and that Brother Wallace said, and I would hear this stated in different ways, that "EASTER in the KJV was not an endorsement of the holiday, but a reference to time used by the KJV translators." I think my last response to such was something along the line of "How do you keep all that in your heard? Isn't it just easier and happier to celebrate?" That was when I received "the look". I do not want "the look" anymore. I have not had "the look" in a long while. I do not have time for "the look". I want to use my remaining years to celebrate.

  3. FANTASTIC! I resonate so much with "reading" the stories told by popular culture. I'm not saying that the Grinch TV show or the Rudolf TV show were "Christian"... but I do believe in general revelation... that when someone strikes a true chord, it's not by chance, but because, somehow, they had the truth revealed to them through the evidence in the world around them.... and such is the case with the Grinch and Rudolf... and when Charles Schultz comes along with his Christmas special, he confirms what was always there in the general revelation.

    Thank you, Richard... this is a keeper.

  4. That'd be a great Advent/Christmas sermon: "The Body of Christ: Welcome to the Island of Misfit Toys!"

  5. Richard, when I first became a minister, I thought this was only true of my congregation. But now I am convinced it is the truth of humanity--every single one of us misfits, but misfits with the king in their midst.

  6. Please forgive my rant below. I was headed in the direction of the confused child finding comfort from Christmas TV, but stayed too long on the confused child becoming the frustrated adult and minister. I will try to stay on course next time. I appreciate this blog too much to waste time and space.

  7. No worries. In the online world that barely constitutes as a rant. You didn't curse or compare someone to Hitler. So you're good. :-)

  8. I liked this very much! Like you, these TV specials were a real highlight for me growing up. So good to know that a whole generation was absorbing, to some degree, core truths of the gospel on a yearly basis. I am not really plugged in to television anymore...I wonder, are they still shown? I can only hope.

  9. Something I just noticed today while watching it with my kids: Linus only puts his security blanket down twice. First when he is doing the speech you have above. The second is when he wraps the tree. I don't know if that was intentional by Charles Schultz or not, but I sure like to think it is.

  10. Rudolph was on about 2 days ago on one of the major networks. We watched it with my kids.

  11. Wow! As a lover of film and someone who tries to be aware of the important thematic/theological elements while watching, I had never really thought through these. These films were such a significant part of my childhood, I guess I just never thought to revisit them. Thanks for this post!

  12. Thanks so much for the post. We've been having conversation around Christmas specials this Advent and your post really helped bring it together.

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