The “true meaning of Christmas” is a phrase with a long history in American pop culture. It first appears in the mid-19th century, and is often given vaguely religious overtones, suggesting that the “true meaning of Christmas” is the celebration of the Nativity of Christ. But in pop culture usage, overt religious references are mostly avoided, and the “true meaning” is taken to be a sort of introspective and benevolent attitude as opposed to the commercialization of Christmas which has been lamented since at least the 1850s. The poem A Visit From St. Nicholas (1822) helped popularize the tradition of exchanging gifts, and seasonal Christmas shopping began to assume economic importance. Harriet Beecher Stowe criticizes the commercialization of Christmas in her story “Christmas; or, the Good Fairy”. An early expression of this sentiment using the phrase of “the true meaning” is found in The American magazine, vol. 28 (1889):
- “to give up one’s very self — to think only of others — how to bring the greatest happiness to others — that is the true meaning of Christmas”
The phrase is especially associated with Charles Dickens‘ A Christmas Carol (1843), in which an old miser is taught the true meaning of Christmas by three ghostly visitors who review his past and foretell his future.
The topic was taken up by satirists such as Stan Freberg and Tom Lehrer during the 1950s and eventually by the influential TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas, first aired in 1965 and repeated every year since. Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957) also illustrates the topos, and was very influential in the form of an animated TV special produced in 1966. The phrase and the associated morale became used as a trope in numerous Christmas films since the 1960s.