In Praise of the Grinch
“For a person of unblinking honesty, the holiday season (as wonderful as it is) offers plenty of things to hate” (from Parents’ Choice)
There’s something about Christmas that can bring out the curmudgeon in us. For a person of unblinking honesty, the holiday season (as wonderful as it is) offers plenty of things to hate: department stores that begin decorating shortly after Halloween, those damnably cute red-and-white elf hats that some folks wear, the chore of Christmas cards. But say one critical word about the holiday and you’re immediately assaulted by coercive group-think, by the sanctimonious herd who’ll tell you: “Get in the spirit” and “Don’t be a Grinch.”
The crankiness sometimes evoked by Christmas seems a reaction to an excess of sentimentality and the pathetic that is common during the holiday season. Consider how the typical Christmas story is pathetically touching: Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Matchgirl freezing to death in the streets of an uncaring world while others celebrate indoors around their Christmas trees; the March sisters sacrificing their Christmas dinner to the poor German family in Little Women; the gifts of a hairbrush and watch chain to the shorn wife and watch-less husband in O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” If that isn’t enough of the touching, consider how many times during the season that the films “Miracle on 34th Street” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” will appear on television. And if that still isn’t enough, consider how many times newspapers will feature stories about someone who did a good deed and felt warm inside. In small doses this is fine; but after a certain point, it’s enough to make a diabetic wince.
This is Grinch territory, and we might begin to explore it by noting a curious post-holiday phenomenon of the last decade or so. After a long period of good behavior and kind feelings in the run-up to Christmas, and after plumping themselves with holiday dinners, folks go to movie theaters for the opposite, for mayhem and mischief, for scary rather than merry. Consider the offerings of Christmas Past: “Gremlins” (where teddy-bear-like creatures become murderous in a shootout at–of all places, the Holy-of-Holies–a toy store); “Scrooged” (where in a reprise on Dickens’ story, Bill Murray plays an arrogant network exec assaulted by monsters); “The Grinch” (both the recent film with Jim Carrey and the popular animated version where Boris Karloff supplies the sinister creature’s voice); “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas”; and more. Call these all examples of “Dark Christmas” or “Christmas.alt.”
The first to do this was Charles Dickens’ in A Christmas Carol, the first to mix the Nativity with the Gothic. While not completely free of sentimentality (think of the crippled Tiny Tim and his concluding the tale with “God bless us, every one”), Dickens’ story is a surprisingly dark holiday entry: a nightmare where ghosts go clanking about and Ebenezer Scrooge has a change of heart in a graveyard. Wait a minute! Where’s Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer and all his upbeat kin? Isn’t Christmas a time for happiness rather than remorse and scariness? Dickens’ classic seems to have mistakenly mixed up Christmas with Halloween.
Of course, Tim Burton deliberately mixes up these same dates in his Halloween-like “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” his terrific upside-down version of Clement Moore’s famous holiday poem “The Night Before Christmas.” But prior to that, the first “upside-down version of Moore’s poem” was Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Indeed, anyone who has thoughtfully read the good doctor’s book will subsequently see Moore’s beloved holiday poem in a completely new way–as an account of greedy tots bent on “getting ” and poised in acquisitive anticipation:
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
Seuss provides the antidote to this picture of junior consumers with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads; his parody even echoes Moore’s rhyme scheme. The Grinch (dressed as a sham St. Nick) and his dog Max (masquerading as a reindeer) travel to Who-ville and put Moore’s poem on “rewind.” Descending the chimney, the Grinch notices:
Where the little Who stockings all hung in a row.
“These stockings,” he said, “are the first things to go!”
Then he slithered and slunk, with a smile most unpleasant,
Around the whole room, and he took every present!
But this is only the beginning of his subtractions because the Grinch takes everything, from Christmas tree to yule log. But, you will remember, Christmas comes just the same:
“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 here is where the Grinch pauses: with the authentic, with the Xcess removed from Xmas. Properly understood, the Grinch is not the enemy of Christmas; he is the enemy of the inauthentic and insincere. At a time of year awash in over-the-top sentimentality and contrived touching stories, the hard-nosed Grinch wants to save Christmas from all the bogus frills and furbelows. He wants, in fact, to save us. As Tiny Tim might say, “God bless you, Dr. Seuss.”
An earlier version of this essay appeared in Parents’ Choice (December 2005).
If the truth be told, Dr. Seuss–as longtime La Jolla resident Ted Geisel was known–was preparing to write “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (1957) all his life. In his first book, “And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street” (1937), Dr. Seuss tells of a young boy named Marco who on his walk home dreams up an extravagant cast of characters (from a rajah on an elephant to a brass band). At the end, however, when his father asks him what he has seen, the imaginative hoopla collapses and Marco admits that all he’s seen is “a plain horse and wagon on Mulberry Street.” If an author were to take something from this book for use later, one would have expected Seuss to recycle the old chestnut at work here (about the glories of a child’s imagination in a world of matter-of-fact adults). Instead, ever the subversive, Seuss took something else and borrowed from Marco’s father to create his Grinch whose similar delight lies in deflating the extravagant hoopla of Christmas.
In the 1940s, Seuss questioned noble sentiments. What if someone is “faithful one hundred per cent” (he asks in “Horton Hatches the Egg”) or what if “a host must above all be nice to his guests” (he asks in “Thidwick, the Big Hearted Moose”)? The answer is that (reductio ad absurdum) calamities result: Horton is victimized by freeloaders and Thidwick’s head is nearly mounted on the wall. Taking the side of children, the good doctor warns them about slavishly following the maxims of their elders. “Always question the givens,” he seems to advise; and he would question the given of Christmas in his story about the Grinch.
In 1957 Seuss’ great villain arrived in “The Cat in the Hat.” Two children are alone and their mother gone when this visitor waltzes in, promises “real fun,” proceeds to wreck the house, and does even more scary things while the fish screams to the children that their mother is not going to like that. This Cat is no tender children’s book character. Instead, this feline Mephistopheles is an adult-sized homewrecker, another of Seuss’ Lords of Misrule, and (as his diabolical eyes suggest) cousin to the Grinch.