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Throughout the season of Advent – which this year encompasses the four weeks leading up to December 25 – we’re looking at classic Christmas movies and how they might connect us to the miracle of God choosing to become a human being.
On December 26, 1956, Ted Geisel stared at himself in the mirror while brushing his teeth.
What he saw was what he later described as “a very Grinch-ish countenance.”
Even though he was a bestselling author and illustrator of children’s books, Theodor Seuss Geisel – better known as Dr. Seuss – felt depressed. His wife was in the middle of a chronic health crisis. Christmas irritated him. He saw it as little more than a commercial racket. Geisel wondered how he had ended up wallowing in such cynicism.
He resolved to write a book about the face he saw in the mirror. “I wrote about my sour friend, the Grinch, to see if I could rediscover something about Christmas that obviously I’d lost.” Just as Charlie Brown’s neurotic, I’m-an-all-time-loser persona was a direct reflection of his creator, Charles M. Schulz, the pinched green face of the Grinch was how Dr. Seuss pictured himself.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, published in 1957, was his attempt to compose a happier ending to his own story.
Nine years later, on December 18, 1966, Geisel’s Christmas masterpiece debuted on CBS as an hour-long animated TV special. Boris Karloff, famous for his roles as Frankenstein and The Mummy three decades earlier, provided the creepy voiceover.
According to the story, the Grinch lives in a mountain hideaway just north of Whoville, a community of incorrigibly happy citizens. He’s had to put up with their celebration of Christmas for 53 years (as observers later noted, Geisel was 53 years old when he wrote the book). “And then! Oh, the noise! Oh, the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!” The Grinch hates the three central pillars of the Who Christmas – the noise, the food, and the singing. He determines to eliminate them all.
What accounts for this dreadful disposition?
Maybe the Grinch’s head wasn’t screwed on just right, or maybe his shoes might have been too tight. “But I think that the most likely reason of all, may have been that his heart was two sizes too small.” That was Geisel’s self-diagnosis. He was suffering from “heart disease.”
The Grinch swoops into Whoville on December 24 and snatches every vestige of Christmas. He intends to throw the presents, the decorations, and the roast beast off the edge of a precipice.
So far so good. At this point in the book, Geisel has crafted a monster who perfectly embodied his own monstrous attitude.
But now he had a problem. How was he going to redeem the Grinch? In other words, how was he going to save himself from his own wretched Grinchiness?
Geisel struggled for three months. He later wrote, “I got hung up getting the Grinch out of the mess. I got into a situation where I sounded like a second-rate preacher’’ – contemplating slick and easy theological solutions, that is. Suddenly a picture came into his mind. He imagined the Grinch and the Whos having Christmas dinner together – and the Grinch himself carving the roast beast. What would cause him to arrive at such a place?
It was singing. The Whos were standing and singing because of an internal joy – a joy that survived all the externals being swept away. Christmas somehow came anyways.
And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?”
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!”
The best things about Christmas are not found under a tree. It is a very old lesson – but a lesson we need to learn and relearn every year.
Very few countries are as enthusiastic about Christmas as Japan. Over the past half century, Japanese culture has embraced gift-giving, colored lights, festive parties, and Santa Claus. This is unexpected, to say the least, since only one percent of Japanese citizens identify as followers of Jesus, and December 25 has never been recognized as a national holiday.
In the late 1960s, a handful of Americans living in Japan yearned to enjoy a traditional Christmas dinner. Since no grocery store had turkeys, they opted for the next best thing: fried chicken from KFC. Some of their Japanese neighbors were intrigued and a new tradition was born. In 1974 KFC launched a “Kentucky for Christmas” campaign. Millions of Japanese now look forward to eating a bucket of fried chicken, side salad, and “Christmas cake” every year – a special feast that must be ordered weeks in advance.
The people of Japan have enthusiastically embraced the externals of Christmas. But the internal realities of joy and compassion don’t spring from plastic Santas and Christmas cake. They are anchored in the central truth that Christmas is the story of God rescuing our broken world by becoming a human being.
Grace is what made the Grinch’s heart grow three sizes that day – the grace of recognizing that life doesn’t come down to what we have, but whether the Creator of Christmas has us.
Here’s what that transformation looks like in the original 1966 movie: Grinch’s Heart Grows – YouTube
Did Ted Geisel get to live out his own happy ending? It’s true that the vanity license plate on his car said “Grinch.” But the exercise he undertook of looking behind the noise and commercialism of all those secular holiday celebrations delivered him from the chains of cynicism.
May we, by God’s grace, have the same experience – and be able to sing with the people of Whoville, “Welcome Christmas while we stand, heart to heart and hand in hand.”