Dr. Seuss’s Grinch has become–with Dickens’s Ebeneezer Scrooge, on whom the Grinch seems to be based–an icon of anti-Christmas grouchy selfishness. This despite the fact that both stories are about redemption and change, at the end of which the Grinch and Scrooge are as open-hearted, or even more open-hearted, than the average person. For whatever reason, the names are associated with the non-redeemed state of these characters. Accordingly, calling someone a Grinch is no compliment.
One would therefore hesitate before saying something in defense of the Grinch–I mean the original Grinch, before his transformation. But there is something to be said for him. At least, his complaints about Christmas (as practiced by the dominant culture) have some merit. One of his principal complaints is the “noise”–or, as he puts it, to fill out Dr. Seuss’s verse, “all the noise, noise, noise, noise.” I thought of this complaint when I recently read something by a man–Pope Benedict–who I think is very far from being a Grinch. Benedict’s remarks were made last year on the occasion of the Feast of the Immaculate conception of Mary, but he was addressing the Gospel reading, in which Gabriel appears to Mary, she accepts God’s will for her, and Jesus is conceived–thus making the first Christmas possible. In these remarks Benedict observed that this great event occurred in silence, and that spiritual profundity becomes possible in silence:
First of all, we are always struck by and made to reflect on the fact that this moment crucial to humanity’s destiny, the moment in which God was made man, is shrouded in deep silence. The encounter between the divine messenger and the Immaculate Virgin takes place completely unnoticed; nobody knows and nobody talks about it. It is an event which, were it to happen in our time, would leave no trace in the newspapers and magazines, because it is a mystery that happens in silence. What is truly great often goes unnoticed and peaceful silence proves more fruitful than the frenetic restlessness characteristic of our cities, but which — by comparison — people were already experiencing in important cities such as Jerusalem at that time; the pressure that makes us unable to stop, to be calm, to listen to the silence in which the Lord enables us to hear his discreet voice.
Of course, the Grinch complains about the noise not because he wants to hear God, but because he does not want to be disturbed in his solitude. The noise he hates is of people–or, to be more precise, the Whos down in Whoville–making merry and enjoying each other’s company. Still, there is something about the Whos’ celebration that is not right. That is, it is not really Christmas as a Christian holiday. There is no Christ in the Whos’ Christmas. And Seuss’s story does more than just omit Jesus. It offers a positive statement implying (at least) that we can get along without him: “Christmas time will always be, just so long as we have we.” The Whos understand that Christmas is not about receiving material gifts, but they do not understand what it really is about: receiving God incarnate. The lesson of Seuss’s story about the Grinch seems to be the sufficiency of human solidarity. The Grinch alone cannot be self-sufficient, cannot be truly happy. But the community of human beings can: all will be well, “so long as we have we.”
But the Christian meaning of Christmas is far different. “We” are not self-sufficient, either as individuals, as communities, or even as the human race. The Christmas story is inseparable from the belief that the human race is in deep trouble on its own. It is alienated from God, and it cannot repair the breach through any effort it could undertake. There is nothing any human being could do, nor that all human beings could do together, to save us. It can only be done by the God who is willing to become a man, indeed, to become a baby. But this is a joyful, and not a frightening, message, precisely because this God is willing and has in fact done it.
If we have to choose between the Grinch and the Whos down in Whoville, I suppose we should take the Whos. But we should prefer Charles Schulz’s Linus to both. When asked what Christmas is all about, Linus avoids any humanitarian claptrap (“we have we”) and goes straight to the Gospel of Luke: “For to you is born this day in the City of David a Savior . . . That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”