For an ancient holiday, Christmas has had a surprisingly cozy relationship with the modern world. The commercial radio age began on Christmas Eve, 1906, when "O Holy Night" was sung on the first AM radio broadcast. You could write a whole history of Christmas broadcast television, from sleepy Whoville and its Grinch to Charlie Brown specials (not to mention Gian-Carlo Menotti's NBC opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, broadcast in 1951). Christmas provides the leitmotif for It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, Elf and Home Alone. And 2013 brought us Christmas albums from Mary J. Blige, Erasure, Nick Lowe, and (no joke) Bad Religion. Without Christmas, our popular culture would be as flightless as Santa's sleigh without its red-nosed reindeer.
It's not just punk bands that find themselves in Christmas's surprisingly inclusive embrace—Handel's Messiah was first performed in April and is better suited to Easter, but it has become a staple of the Christmas season. Ancient Yule traditions mix merrily with the holiday's religious elements, nowhere more than in the carols from England and Europe (many of which, like the tune to "Good King Wenceslas," began as spring carols but were repurposed to convey wintry cheer).
To be sure, one other holiday is gaining on Christmas both culturally and commercially. Halloween, too, has its own beloved Charlie Brown special, and like Christmas, it traffics in candles and darkness, celebrations of childhood and hints of mortality. But it is in every way a thinner and less substantial holiday, the apple cider to Christmas's egg nog, the scowling pumpkin to Christmas's festive tree, a candy bar instead of a feast. Not only are there no Halloween carols, even the ritual greeting "Trick or treat" has nearly gone out of favor, to judge by the largely mute imps who visit our door.
And oddly, given how much more important it is to the Christian faith, even Easter can't compete with Christmas for sheer cultural influence. Easter's rolling stone has gathered little moss—its handful of carols and hymns don't begin to compete with the profusion of singable Christmas music. Nor, in spite of falling near its own solar holiday, do Easter's bunnies and eggs come close to Christmas's outright merger with Roman and European solstice traditions.
Only Christmas is such a riotous palimpsest of traditions, myths, rituals, and memories. Not to mention outright misunderstandings (the King James Version's beloved "on earth peace, good will toward men" is a mistranslation of Luke's less inclusive original Greek, "peace on earth to those God favors") and implausible conflations (Matthew's Magi show up next to Luke's shepherds, even though Matthew's account makes it clear they couldn't have arrived until some time after Jesus' birth). There is simply no other holiday with Christmas's imaginative density.
And that's oddly appropriate, since Christmas may have done more than anything to shape the imagination of the West.
New Game in Town
Start with the date of Christmas itself. Christmas's would-be debunkers gleefully point out every year that December 25 was surely timed to coincide with Roman solstice celebrations, not the actual season of Christ's birth (and judging from the outdoor shepherds, there is certainly a case to be made that Jesus was more likely born in the springtime).