On the first Christmas, Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to avoid a bloodthirsty tyrant who planned to snatch away the life of Christ, and ever since then a surprising number of Christmas stories have dealt with thieving villains. It’s a theme hardwired into the holiday. The Devil steals the moon in Nikolai Gogol’s “Christmas Eve.” Then there’s Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life, the Wet Bandits in Home Alone, Hans Gruber in Die Hard, and the most recognizable Christmas villain in twentieth century literature—the Grinch.
How The Grinch Stole Christmas has proven an enduring story because it deals both in venerable Christmas themes and contemporary ones, although the contemporary themes are often misunderstood. Most think pieces about The Grinch describe it as a story which bemoans the commercialization of Christmas, and many prattle on about how Ted Geisel (Seuss) intentionally stripped the story of any overtly religious qualities.
Granted, there is quite a bit in The Grinch about the commercialization of Christmas, but most of it comes directly from the Grinch himself, and his complaints are ultimately proven false. In the end, The Grinch expresses little concern over the commercialization of Christmas, and much concern over those people who are dogmatically certain the commercialization problem is real. They’re the real problem.
Before I go any further, though, let me say that I would like to discuss the 1966 film, not the 1957 book. The film is a rare case wherein nothing essential has been omitted from the book, and, rather, a number of fine and true details have been added in. What’s more, the film tames a good deal of Seuss’s zaniness, which I’ve never cared for, and director Chuck Jones (who oversaw the golden age of Warner Bros. cartoons) amply supplies the story with the same comedic physics that make Wile E. Coyote and Bugs Bunny such a hoot to watch. All this to say, as a high school literature teacher, it gives me real delight to tell you to skip the book and just watch the film instead.
This caveat aside…
Watch The Grinch attentively and you’ll find the whole plot plays out over a period of just twelve hours. The story begins on Christmas Eve and finishes early Christmas morning. The Whos are the kind of people who decorate for Christmas the night before, which makes me think they don’t start on the fudge and frosted sugar cookies the split-second Thanksgiving lets out. They are—yes, I’m going there—a fairly ascetic people, and I think this fact is key to the film’s surprising denouement.
From his mountaintop lair, the Grinch listens as the Whos prepare for Christmas, and the narrator tells us, “The Grinch hated Christmas… Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason,” which is interesting given the narrator then immediately begins describing everything the Grinch hates about Christmas. This is clearly a riddle. We have everything we need to figure out why the Grinch hates Christmas. We just have to connect the pieces.
If you’ve seen the film, you almost certainly remember the enumeration of the Grinch’s Christmas complaints—or a few of them, at any rate.
The first thing the Grinch hates is the noise, almost all of which comes from toys, and we are tempted to think the Grinch simply doesn’t like children. A dislike of children naturally leads to a dislike of Christmas, for Christmas is obviously a children’s holiday. But no, the Grinch could handle Christmas if it were just a lot of noise (children are noisy all year), but after the noisy toys comes the Who feast, the centerpiece of which is the Rare Who-roast-beast, which is something the Grinch “can’t stand in the least.” Why should this bother him, though? Perhaps he can hear the racket of the toys, but no one is forcing him to eat the Who food, right? So what does the Grinch care if people six miles away are enjoying a little red meat? The Grinch is free to eat Tofurkey or Morning Star chorizo crumbles or whatever nasty thing he likes in the privacy and solitude of his own home, is he not?
But after the feast, the Whos do something the Grinch likes “least of all.” They sing—and the whole film hangs on the Whos singing. As the Whos come out to sing, “Christmas bells” ring, and while Geisel may have tried to make the story as secular as possible, the only bells that ring on Christmas morning come from churches, and the only songs sung on Christmas morning are sung by Christians. As a side note, the singing and bells are so obviously Christian, you’ll find a few popular YouTube channels for kids wherein the singing and bells are edited out. The Grinch goes straight from complaining about the feast to plotting to steal Christmas.
The fact the Grinch hates the Who’s singing more than their noise means his complaint with Christmas isn’t merely that it’s unpleasant or inconvenient. I love Christmas and will frankly admit there are parts of it which are indeed unpleasant and inconvenient. But the singing bothers the Grinch most because he finds it hypocritical. After all the wish lists, the spending, the drinking, and the eating, the Whos have the audacity to sing a hymn—as though their hedonistic pursuit of pleasure were for some higher and nobler purpose. What rot! What self-serving rot!
And so the Grinch gets a “wonderful, awful” idea. He’s going to dress up like St. Nick and steal Christmas.
Of course, the Grinch can’t steal the thing that bothers him most about Christmas, which is the singing, but he can steal everything else—and in stealing everything else, the Grinch is fairly sure he’s going to steal their singing, too. He’s going to prove them all a bunch of hypocrites. While the Grinch never makes a wager with God, he still reminds me of Satan in the book of Job. If the Whos lose all their stuff, they won’t be singing anymore—or so the Grinch believes. (As a side note: the Grinch does not sleep, does not sing, does not eat, and he knows his enemies intimately though there is no evidence they’ve ever seen him before. He’s more than a little demonic.)
Nearly a third of the film’s runtime is spent showing us the Grinch’s delicious theft of all the Who’s Christmas finery. The Grinch is all the more loathsome for the delight he takes in stealing every last thing the Whos might use to celebrate Christmas. He fantasizes about each joy that will be lost as he puts every jot and tittle into his bag, often turning the theft into a macabre game in which windup toys march into his possession. All the while, Boris Karloff sings a long and memorable series of insults at the Grinch, although Karloff voices the Grinch, too, which left me the impression as a child that the Grinch could hear the singing and even relished the disdain he inspired in others.
Some viewers complain that the Grinch’s wickedness is so well established, his change of heart in the end isn’t quite believable. If anything sets up his repentance, it’s the interruption of Cindy-Lou in the middle of his thieving. When young, I thought the Grinch might steal Cindy-Lou, too, although this would have created an untenably bleak drop in the film’s mood. Instead, the Grinch responds like a dad. He comes up with a benign lie explaining his nighttime rambles, “got her a drink,” and “sent her to bed.”
Without a God to wager against, all the Grinch can do is teach the Whos a painful but valuable lesson, which makes him a bit fatherly. He likes peace and quiet. He knows what’s wrong with the world. He’s spartan, a real do-it-yourselfer, and a firm believer that forsaken breadcrusts are the healthiest part of a sandwich… The Grinch’s fatherly qualities explain why we have adopted him into the iconography of Christmas, for his balloon flies in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and his image features on Christmas cards and tacky festive décor, which isn’t true of other Christmas “villains.”
When Cindy-Lou catches the Grinch mid-theft, he is suddenly nervous. He’s done a lot of preaching, but it’s always been to a bunch of empty pews. He’s never been confronted before. He’s never had to explain his complaints to anyone other than his dog. The lie the Grinch tells Cindy-Lou (about the broken bulb on her tree) is typical of Grinches everywhere: there is something wrong with Christmas and “I am trying to fix it.”
After the Grinch makes off with the Whos’ stuff, he ascends a mountain from which he can throw Christmas into an abyss. Before he pushes everything over the edge, though, he pauses to hear the weeping and gnashing of teeth which he expects will issue from every burgled Who home below. Instead, he hears the same singing he hears every year. Shocked, the Grinch begins talking through what exactly has happened. “It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes, or bags!” he says, befuddled.
Many viewers take the Grinch’s assessment of the situation to mean, “Yes, Christmas has become pretty commercial, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t actually need to spend a lot of money to make Christmas Christmas,” but this isn’t what the Grinch says. Rather, the Grinch has finally stopped his soapboxing and sermonizing. He was wrong about the Whos and he admits it. There isn’t anything wrong with Christmas. It’s not a commercial racket. It’s a holiday “for man, and for our salvation,” just like the Church has claimed all along. The devil was simply incorrect about Job. Sorry, Karl Marx. Beliefs don’t follow bank accounts. Faith is real. Piety is real.
Seuss says the Grinch’s heart “grows three sizes” when he hears the Whos singing, which I don’t love because it doesn’t really suggest a change, merely an improvement. Chuck Jones supplies the conversion the book lacks, though, when he turns the Grinch’s red and yellow eyes blue and white, just like Cindy-Lou’s eyes. The witness of the Whos is the Grinch’s salvation. He’s one of the many torturers and persecutors described in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History who is plagued by a guilty conscience for days after leaving the arena, hands red, and finally marches back to die the same death he forced on others. The Santa suit the Grinch donned cynically becomes sincere. He has nothing to give the Whos, but He returns anyway to make them the only real offer any man can make: “Thine own of Thine own.”
We keep coming back to The Grinch because it’s one of very few modern works of fiction that defends Christmas as it currently stands. The film isn’t a call for the average man to reform, but for the Christmas puritan to quit complaining. You’re not smarter than Christmas. You’re not holier than Christmas. You’re not better than the hoi polloi rifling through the cut rate Christmas garbage in the bargain bins at the front of Target. You are the reason Christ came to die—and His coming is cause every year for the biggest celebration you can muster.