What is the True Meaning Of Christmas? A common, yet ambiguous theme in Christmas Specials (episodes, films, stories, etc.), usually answered with An Aesop.
In fiction the "True Meaning of Christmas" is often (though not always) "better to give than to receive." That is the most common Aesop, especially in kid's shows, but also sitcoms, etc. We've Seen It a Million Times and it's often lampshaded with those exact words when Mr. Exposition sums it all up at the end.
However, the most memorable and popular of "Christmas specials" almost always have a different "True Meaning of Christmas" For example:
The Big O surprisingly uses the Christian explanation for their Heaven's Day episode. That might indicate that its Judeo-Christian themes are more than just empty symbolism. It also was Foreshadowing that the Villain knew things about the past world when he shouldn't have by informing the person next to him its about the day God's son was born. (In the setting, everyone has amnesia of anything before 40 years ago.)
Doubly subverted in A Christmas Story. The family does end up eating at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day, and the kid nearly gets his eye put out by the BB gun he wanted...which sounds like an antithesis to the trope. But they learn the Christmas Aesop after all.
And in the beginning it's inverted—Jack does understand the meaning of the Christmas feeling and deeply wants it; he just doesn't understand exactly where it comes from. His attempts to make Christmas are what cause the titular nightmare.
Paroided in The Hebrew Hammer, where the heroes chuckle over the fact that Damien Claus failed to understand the true meaning of Channukah. Only for them to realize that none of them have any idea just what the point of the holiday is either.
Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas uses this: "Maybe Christmas, perhaps, doesn't come from a store... maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more..." (In this case, the true meaning of Christmas seemed to be thankfulness for friends, neighbors, and family.)
In Hogfather, Death talks about teaching people the real meaning of Hogswatch (the Discworld's Christmas equivalent). Albert sarcastically asks which one he means — burn a big bonfire to bring back the sun? Someone's found a bean in their food so now we have to kill him? Slaughter all the livestock and hope we have enough food to get through winter? Death reluctantly concedes the point and says Very well, then. The Hogfather can teach people the unreal meaning of Hogswatch. Then he proceeds to subvert some Broken Aesops, by giving rich gifts to poor children instead of letting them be grateful for what they get (which is usually almost nothing), and rescuing The Little Match Girl.
It's worth noting that part of the book's Aesop (and that of Discworld in general) is that the "unreal" meanings of things are actually very important—including the kinds of meanings that Alfred sarcastically suggests.
You have to believe in things that aren't real. Otherwise, how can they become?
C. S. Lewis begins his 1957 essay "What Christmas Means to Me" (collected in his book God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics) by stating that there are actually three different things that go by the name of Christmas: a religious festival, a popular holiday, and a commercial racket.
"[The religious aspect] is important and obligatory for Christians; but as it can be of no interest to anyone else, I shall naturally say no more about it here."
half of the songs in Will Vinton's Claymation Christmas celebration are distinctly religious, and two of them directly reference The Birth of Christ: "We Three Kings" has the kings singing with do-wop camels, ending with the Star Of Bethlehem, "Joy To the World" starts and ends zooming in on a church's stained glass windows before going into african-american inspired artwork depeicting Christ's Birth, while "Angels We Have Heard on High" is only used as an instrumental backdrop for two skating walruses and penguins.
The Vicar of Dibley Christmas episode featured a scene in which Geraldine reminds the parish council about the true meaning of Christmas while they're rehearsing their nativity play (in response to Owen suggesting that it wasn't the Greatest Story Ever Told compared to, "The one where the couple had burglers break into their house and thought they didn't take anything, but a few months later had their pictures developed and got photographs of the burglers sticking their toothbrushes up their bottoms".)
The trope is referenced (along with A Christmas Carol) in the pilot episode of Star Trek: Voyager, when Tom Paris tells Harry Kim how he accidentally caused the deaths of three Starfleet officers: "The ghosts of those three dead officers came to me in the middle of the night and taught me the true meaning of Christmas."
Played with tongue firmly planted in cheek in the 2010 Leverage episode, "The Ho Ho Ho Job", when crazy hacker/Magnificent Bastard Chaos (played by Wil Wheaton) is arrested for attempting to rob the Federal Reserve on Christmas. Alec(whose van Chaos blew up earlier in the ep) was there to deliver the coup de grace:
Chaos: You have to admit, it was a good plan.
Hardison: It was, but there was one thing you didn't count on.
Chaos: Aw, no.
Hardison: You forgot...
Chaos: No, no, no...
Hardison: ...about the true meaning...
Chaos: Don't you say it!
Hardison: ...of Christmas.
Chaos: Gah, come on man, that barely applies here!
Abed's goal in the CommunityChristmas Episode, after his mother not being able to visit over Christmas for the first time ever causes him to hallucinate a stop-motion animated journey through Winter Wonderland, accompanied by a Christian, a Jew, a Jehovah's Witness, an Atheist, an Agnostic and a "Buddhist".
Abed: I get it. The meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning. And it can mean whatever we want. It used to mean being with my mom.Now it means being with you guys.
The Christmas Episode of 2011 parodies via a skewering of Glee; the director of the campus glee club appears to sincerely believe that a failure to put on the school's Christmas pageant will mean the complete destruction of Christmas.
Mitch Benn has a song called "The True Meaning of Christmas".
"The true meaning of Christmas is to eat until it hurts
Then drink until it don't hurt any more."
A 1960s song by the Ray Conniff Singers states, "The real meaning of Christmas is the giving of love every day."
A strange musical example happens in The Who's Tommy in the play, album, and movie. In an opera that is otherwise not at all about Christmas, there is a single song titled, appropriately enough, "Christmas". The main character's parent(s) ponder if Tommy realizes that it's Christmas and if he experiences any of the joys of the holiday.
It's deeper than that—they're also worried that he'll go to Hell. "Tommy doesn't know what day it is/He doesn't know who Jesus was or what praying is/How can he be saved/From the eternal grave?"
Brundo the Decemberween Yak: Oh, I lost all my magics.
Elf: Don't you see? The magic of Decemberween is inside everyone!
Sheriff/Narrator: And so they returned the sword of St. Olaf to its rightful owner, and discovered the true meaning of Decemberween. Buh-buh-buh-buh-bye, kids!
And in this short, Homestar and Strong Bad watch the Sweet Cuppin' Cakes holiday special:
Strong Bad: Um, didn't I invent this cartoon? Homestar: Yeah, I think so. Strong Bad: Then how come I can't understand a lick of it? Homestar: What's not to understand? Eh! Steve!'s mouth exploded the universe, and that blond guy did a tiny, tiny dance. Strong Bad: Oh, right. The true meaning of Decemberween. Homestar: Yeah yeah, right right!
Another Homestar Runner cartoon parodies it yet another way. Homestar buys last-minute gifts for everyone and:
Strong Bad: Foolish Homestar. Decemberween is not about getting people presents. It's about getting people good presents! Good presents! Not this last-minute discount crap you're trying to foist on us!
The Simpsons parodied this in the episode where Apu and Manjula had octuplets. After the episode skips from Manjula finding that she's pregnant to when she's about to give birth, the Simpsons offhandedly list a few things they've done over the last nine months. Bart's stories include "I learnt the true meaning of Columbus Day" and "and then I learnt the true meaning of Winter".
"Hey, since when was Christmas just about the presents? Aren't we forgetting the true meaning of this day? The birth of Santa?"
Dexters Laboratory had an awesome subversion. Dexter is fighting a climactic battle with Santa Claus and his family walks in on them and see the demolished living room, Christmas tree and gifts. Dexter understanding he has upset his family says the typical Christmas Aesop of how Christmas is all about sharing, giving, love, and family. Then Dee Dee tells "You blockhead! That's not what Christmas is about!" Dexter then asks "Oh yeah? Then what is Christmas about?" Santa answers simply with, "The presents." Episode ends.
Oddly, for this trope he already knew it - getting presents was less important to him than Christmas being one of the few days of the year his usually neglectful parents would give him any attention. Which sort of makes the episode's Aesop that wishing for Christmas every day is wrong kind of depressing from the perspective of Fridge Logic.
Lampshaded in the last scene, when the narrator tells us that Karl-Bertil's mom "got an almost religious expression in her eyes...for this happened at a time when Christmas was used to celebrate the birth of Christ."
My Little Pony G3.5 has the short Waiting for the Winter Wishes Festival (a prelude to the Direct to DVDWinter Wishes Festival special Twinkle Wish Adventure), in which the ponies sing about their favorite things to do during the holiday season. Pinkie Pie sings that one of the things she likes is throwing holiday parties, but later sings:
A GarfieldChristmas Special skirts the edge of the standard "better to give than recieve"—Garfield kicks off the show by dreaming of getting lots of rich presents and is a grouch about having to go to Jon's mother's for the holliday. He's warmed over by Grandma's reminiscing (the warm lap doesn't hurt either), finding old love letters from her departed husband to give her and Odie's surprise gift to him, summing it up with "Christmas: It's not the getting, it's not the giving, it's the loving. (bashfully) ...There, I said it, now get out of here."
Subverted in "Low Tidings", the Christmas special for The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. K'Nuckles learns the "better to give than to receive" Aesop... but it's made moot when Poseidon, God of the Sea (who also runs the holiday) states that everyone gets gifts now, no matter whether they've been good or bad. You know, just like in Real Life.
In Prep And Landing, Wayne always considered his Christmas duties (to prepare Santa's arrival in the houses) as a job and nothing more. And because of events in the movie, he's now in full "doesn't care" mode, until his attitude almost causes the abortion of a visit, and owes him to get called out by his younger partner Lanny, who gives the fifth staple (A Christmas Story) as the true meaning:
Wayne: We are just tiny ornaments in a gigantic tree, slaving away. And for what?
Lanny: For what? For him. Just look at that face, Wayne. Just imagine his face when he wakes up tomorrow morning. Think of all the memories he'll pass on to his children, and his children's children. The passion may be gone for you, Wayne, but it's not gone for him.
The Veggie Tales video "The Toy That Saved Christmas" followed an action figure, programmed to teach kids the materialistic meaning of Christmas, as he escaped the factory in search of a deeper meaning. This being a Christian-targeted video, he not only learns the True Meaning Of Christmas involves giving to others, but also that it involves God giving Jesus to the Earth.
Subverted on the Venture Brothers Christmas special, as at shows' end, their jet has crashed in Bethlehem, and Brock is uncertain what'll happen if the PLO gets there first:
Dr. Venture: Are you kidding? This baby runs on pure plutonium! They're gonna love us!
Dean: And that's what Christmas is all about!
Danny Phantom tells us that the true meaning of Christmas is to respect the traditions of others and be happy with what you have. It tells us this through rhyme and ghost-fighting actions.
Parodied in the South Park episode "A Very Crappy Christmas," where it turns out that the true meaning is commercialism, because otherwise people wouldn't have jobs.
In another episode, Kyle launches into a True Meaning of Halloween speech, only for Stan to interrupt him and say "Dude, you're thinking of Christmas. Halloween is all about the candy." Satisfied, Kyle goes off to trick-or-treat.
In Ed Eddn Eddy 's Jingle Jingle Jangle, Edd tries to tell Eddy this trope.
"Hold it right there, mister! The true meaning of Christmas isn't about want, or material things! Rather, it comes from here."
"...That's my udder you're touching."
Later Eddy realizes that, "Christmas isn't about what you find under your tree, Christmas is about what you find in your heart." A few minutes later, he steals everyone's gifts from Santa.
An early example is "Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus," which dates from 1897. It's more about the meaning of Santa, of course - but in his role as a representation of belief, of trust in human goodness and in all the beautiful invisible things that cannot be simply found or recorded, but that require faith to exist.
The Onion is slightly more concerned about whether or not people remember the true meaning of Halloween.