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Theft, Lies, and the True Meaning of Christmas: The Legacy of the Grinch

Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer


ImageIt’s become a part of the Christmas tradition as much as a certain red-nosed reindeer or one jolly old elf. The poem, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! was written by Dr. Seuss in 1957. The animated TV adaptation directed by Chuck Jones (of Warner Bros. Looney Tunes & Merrie Melodies fame) first aired in 1966, and it’s been broadcast practically every year around this time since. The two are indelibly linked in my mind, and perhaps for good reason. As opposed to Ron Howard’s terrible live-action adaptation, Jones’ cartoon is an exceptionally faithful and really quite excellent version. It speaks volumes about the storytelling ability of the good doctor that HTGSC can be considered on multiple levels from multiple angles.

One of them is rather obvious, that this is a story of a mean-spirited old hermit who discovers the “true meaning” of Christmas and has a change of heart in the end. In that way it’s not unlike Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. But I’d like to contend that there is another angle from which to look at the Grinch’s story, one that isn’t so full of holiday cheer.

We know the players in this tale. There are all the Whos down in Whoville, the tall and the small, who all liked Christmas a lot. And there is of course the Grinch, who lived just north of Whoville, and most certainly did not. In fact, we’re told that the Grinch hated Christmas, the entire holiday season, but beyond a possibly undersized heart, we’re not given a reason. But Seuss does delve into what about Christmas earns the Grinch’s ire. Even more than the incessant noise caused by the Who girls and boys, even greater than their gathering for a feast on Who pudding and rare Who-roast beast, the one thing of all that he liked in the least is to me the most telling and interesting puzzle piece.

Alright, enough with the rhyming! If the urge returns, I promise to fight it.

It seems this last element, the tradition of the Whos gathering together and joining their hands and their voices in song, is the straw that broke the camel’s back. It’s this seemingly harmless activity that drove the Grinch to commit himself to stopping Christmas from coming. And this is where I finally state the thesis of my essay.

The juxtaposition of the Grinch and the Whos is symbolic of the opposition between spirituality and secular rationalism.

On one end of the spectrum there are the Whos. They represent what can be considered as a kind of organized spirituality. It becomes especially evident to me during that scene near the end, particularly in the TV special of the Whos gathering (in a congregation?) and joining hands, raising their voices (in a hymn?) around a Christmas tree and a shining star (of Bethlehem?); these images could be seen in a religious, and more specifically Christian light. But Seuss doesn’t make any of these references nearly as blatant or specific as A Charlie Brown Christmas, such that one would be hard pressed to argue that they have any sort of organized religion The star could just be a star, the song (mostly gibberish anyway) while evoking a sense of the spirit of Christmas is non specific, and even the Christmas tree, though intertwined with the celebration of Christ’s birth has its roots planted more deeply in the pagan holidays that preceded the Christians’ usurping of December 25th. So no, I don’t think Seuss is pushing any kind of belief system, Christian or otherwise onto viewers, though I think it isn’t too much of a stretch to say there is a spirituality about the Whos. And that spirituality is in stark contrast with the Grinch.

In the Grinch we have a character that can be viewed, in my humble opinion, as a secular rationalist. I think this quality can be attributed to the Grinch mostly by his actions. The one aspect he hates most about Christmas is the most spiritual part of the Whos’ celebration of it. The manner in which the Grinch plans to stop Christmas from coming does not to interfere with this directly, but is instead to steal all of the Whos’ material possessions: the toys, presents, decorations, trees, and food, all of the things associated with the secular aspect of the Christmas holiday. So while he hates the spiritual he focuses on the tangible to carry out his plan.

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Secular rationalism trying to destroy spirituality. You are a mean one, Mr. Grinch. Indeed.

And how does the Grinch do this? Through lies and deceit. He disguises himself as Santa Claus for some late night B&E and grand larceny. And here is where we get the starkest contrast of the Whos (and spirituality) as good and the Grinch (and secular rationalism) as bad. The Grinch is confronted by the only Who that we get introduced to, the only Who with dialogue. Little Cindy-Lou Who, who was no more than two. Sweet. Innocent. Wholesome.

And there’s the Grinch, after slithering through the house, his cover almost blown, lying to poor little Cindy-Lou, hating her and everything she represents. Harsh.

But, as we know, the Grinch’s plan fails. He steals everything he can physically take, and yet the Whos still gather for their spiritual celebration. Christmas came just the same. And the Grinch learns the lesson Seuss wants to impart to us, and more specifically, to our children. And so this lesson makes HTGSC more than a simple Christmas story. It becomes a conversion story. The Grinch, discovering the “true meaning” of Christmas, discovers the Whos’ spirituality, and abandons secular rationalism to embrace, and be embraced by the Whos. And remember, though in the cartoon this realization comes almost immediately, in Seuss’s poem it takes the Grinch three hours to do so. Three hours! This screams rationalism to me. He puzzled over this from every angle, exhausting every possible explanation until he has run out of arguments and justifications and grudgingly comes round to their way of thinking.

Sinister? Well, perhaps not. Am I reading too much into this? I’ll leave it for any atheists or rationalists in the audience to decide. But before I go there’s one other aspect of HTGSC that has always bothered me. The lesson, whether it is choosing spirituality over rationalism, or simply that family and community are more important than gifts and decorations, has always rung false to me. All because of the way Seuss ended his story.

Think about it. The Grinch steals all of the material stuff that we’re told by Corporate America is important to the holiday season, and the Whos celebrate Christmas anyway. They don’t need any of that stuff. It’s not important. That’s pretty powerful. Powerful enough to cause the Grinch to have a change of heart (or undergo a conversion, however you want to look at it). And yet. I would argue that the lesson learned by the Grinch is empty. It’s meaningless. Why?

Because the Whos get all of their stolen stuff back.

In Dickens’ timeless tale Scrooge bestows a pay raise and food and gifts upon Bob Cratchit’s family, because they’ve been living for years with nothing. That continued existence with nothing will lead to the untimely death of Tiny Tim. The very fact that Scrooge intervenes means a healthy life ahead for Tim and the rest of the Cratchits. But the Whos have had toys, presents, and sumptuous feasts every year for the last 53 years. If the Cratchits are the have-nots, then the Whos are definitely the haves, and if going without doesn’t matter to them, if it isn’t important to their celebration and appreciation of Christmas, then maybe they should actually go without one year and see how full they are of Christmas cheer.

And of course they welcome the Grinch into the fold, and he (he himself) carved the roast beast at their Christmas feast. But what would have happened, I wonder, if the Grinch hadn’t been able to save that packed sleigh from falling off the top of Mt. Crumpit and plummeting to the bottom of that chasm? What if he would have ventured down into Who-ville empty handed, full of shame and guilt and remorse? What if instead of arriving blaring on a trumpet and returning all of their presents, he had come back with nothing more than a heart-felt apology and a cry for forgiveness?

Would the Whos have been so quick to forgive and forget? Would they have been so warm and welcoming? The Grinch in me can’t help but wonder…

Author: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer

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