Christmas can wear you out, and the stress and frayed nerves make you wonder why you go through the pretense of it all. Don’t despair, though. That yuletide soul-searching can inspire – to quote one of the most-loved holiday stories – a “wonderful, awful idea.”
One morning on the day after Christmas, Theodor (aka: Dr. Seuss) Geisel, the author of “The Cat in the Hat,” “Green Eggs and Ham” and a host of other children’s classics, felt disheartened, convinced he had lost the meaning of the holiday.
Geisel realized that his gloomy mood mirrored the attitude of a disagreeable creature he created a few years earlier – the Grinch. Thus, an idea for another book was born, one that could help him rediscover the truth about Christmas.
His work on “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” would not be complete until he joined forces with animator Chuck Jones, famous for his Looney Tunes shorts, and the celebrated horror actor Boris Karloff. When “The Grinch” made its television debut on Dec. 18, 1966, it became so popular that a new word was added to the holiday lexicon.
Even after a half-century, “The Grinch” has few detractors, even when considered in a cultural context. Take, for example, the annual “war on Christmas” debates, epitomized by arguments over wishing someone a “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays.” In the perceived divide over religious and secular holiday celebrations, “The Grinch” has a unique ability to satisfy both camps.
“The Grinch” is often described as secular. The program never mentions the birth of Jesus. In fact, a direct reference to Scripture would have been out of place among the peculiar, insect-like residents of Whoville and their Tah Tinkers, Floo Floobers, Bizzel Binks and Dafflers. Geisel even commented that he had a hard time finding the right note to end his Christmas tale because he did not want to make it a “religious tract.” Concluding that “The Grinch” is theologically silent, however, is a mistake.
Anyone willing to risk falling into the trap of overanalyzing Dr. Seuss’ books might begin by noting that they have often been used to teach Christian doctrine, even though Geisel did not consider himself a highly religious person. Still, he was steeped in Christianity while growing up in Springfield, Mass.
Geisel not only attended his mother’s Episcopal church but his father’s Lutheran congregation. His earliest experiences of Christmas came when he joined the other members of the town’s German-American community to sing “Stille Nacht” and “O Tannenbaum.” Later, at Dartmouth and Oxford, he participated in chapel services.
He was drawn to church in part by hymns and their use of rhyme and repetition. One particular hymn seems significant. He memorized “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” including the final lines, “God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity.” Perhaps Geisel recalled the song’s numerical reference when he depicted the Grinch’s conversion in the book:
“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.”
The importance of three hours in the New Testament goes without saying. Two pages later, the Grinch’s heart grows “three sizes” as Christmas’ true meaning dawned on him, a point magnified – literally – in the animated cartoon.
Geisel was reportedly a perfectionist who selected words with extreme care. If he sought to give his readers and viewers a concise, subtle reminder of the spiritual nature of Christmas – that God became flesh and dwelt among men – he called up the right number. In the Bible, three represents the presence of God.
Christian imagery is used to the same effect in the cartoon. As the Whos sing “Welcome Christmas” in the cartoon’s climactic scene, they form a circle around a rising star – a clear reminder of the Star of Bethlehem in the Nativity narrative.
Ultimately, Christmas morning in Whoville provides a lesson for everyone, whether the holiday is approached from a religious perspective, a secular one, or, most likely, a combination of both. All the Whos have faith and know in their hearts that they have something that can never be stolen. And Geisel seems to emphasize their diversity – young, old, tall and small. No one is kept away from the celebration. Even the green guy whose burglary spree left the Whos’ houses with nothing but hooks and wire is welcomed.
As the Grinch ends his descent down Mount Crumpit, the Whos open their circle unconditionally. There is no protest over what he had done. No retribution. No questions asked. This holiday season could be happier if more people imitated this capacity for forgiveness.
This sense of harmony could be what Geisel was missing on the morning he first imagined “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” He certainly longed for it. One of his earliest commentaries on Christmas was an illustrated poem published in Collier’s Magazine on Dec. 23, 1955. “A Prayer for a Child” describes a child’s Christmas wish to God:
“Please tell all men
That Peace is good.
That need be understood.”
As a year highlighted by division starts to close, look for those moments of peace. It’s what the Grinch found as he carved the roast beast. And, no, Dr. Seuss would not mind – not in the least.
Mark A. Noon is an assistant professor of English at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, Pa. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.