It is now nearly impossible to discuss Dr. Seuss’ marvelous holiday story ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ without also remembering and talking about the 1966 animated version. That version is indelibly imprinted on the psyche of an entire generation. It was produced by Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss’s given name) and legendary animator Chuck Jones, the man who also directed it. But it’s Boris Karloff’s resonant narration and creepily catchy ‘You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch’ song in combination with the perfect simplicity of Seuss‘ imagination and heart that make the film so unforgettable.
Dr. Seuss has always had a way with stories. His visuals are uniquely his own. His characters look like nothing else ever seen and all the flourishes in his drawings drive them out of the ordinary, out of the logical, and into a world of his own creation - fantastic, colorful, and accessible to every comer. His narratives often contain lessons or moral considerations and yet never feel heavy or at all like lectures. Instead they appeal to the intrinsic decency in their readers and feature simple heroes rising above troubles to embrace very basic ideals. ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ follows the Seuss structure and breaks down what Christmas is about. Ostensibly it’s for children, as all Seuss’ works were, but watching the film again still impacts me in precisely the same way it did when I was a kid. I still feel my own heart swell when the Whos sing their song that fateful Christmas morning.
The story is as follows:
The Grinch, a mean and miserly type of hermit creature who lives on the top of a mountain above the peaceful hamlet of Whoville, hates all the cheer and bother and noise of Christmas. If there’s one thing he hates it’s “the noise noise noise noise!” But he hates the singing most of all. Every Christmas the Whos sing and sing and sing sing sing sing. Which the Grinch despises so much that one year he decides he “must stop this whole thing. He must stop Christmas from coming - but how?” He ponders and comes up with a “wonderful awful idea”.
He cuts a Santa suit right out of the curtain in his house, dresses his loyal dog Max up as a reindeer, and sets off to Whoville to steal Christmas. It’s during the preparation and thieving scenes that Boris Karloff sings his now-iconic Grinch song and from it we learn a lot of truly horrendous things about the Grinch’s character.
“You’re a monster Mr. Grinch
Your heart’s an empty hole
your brain is full of spiders
you’ve got garlic in your soul
I wouldn’t touch you with a 39 1/2 foot pole”
“You’re a vile one Mr. Grinch
you have termites in your smile
you have all the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile Mr. Grinch”
The Grinch, in his makeshift Santa suit, literally slithers through the Who houses stealing every gift, decoration, and crumb of food while they sleep on Christmas Eve. He even takes the trees. And then he lies about it all to little Cindy Lou Who when she catches him. He is just the worst ever. He packs up his sleigh and forces Max to drag the entire haul up the mountain just before the dawning of Christmas morning. Then he waits, gleefully, to hear the cries of despair from below.
But on Christmas morning when the Whos do discover their robbed and empty homes, instead of the caterwauling and grieving the Grinch so eagerly anticipates, he hears instead their singing. They simply ignore the emptiness and loss of goods, gather hand-in-hand in their town square, and sing away. Christmas, the Grinch realizes then, “came without ribbons, it came without tags, it came without packages, boxes or bags. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store.” Just maybe Christmas means a little bit more.
His heart then grows three sizes. The true meaning of Christmas compels him to trumpet his way back into Whoville to return all the things he has just stolen. He gives all the trimmings back. He even carves the Roast Beast at the great feast. And the story closes noting that Christmas Day “will always be just as long as we have we. Welcome Christmas as we stand, heart to heart, and hand in hand.”
How do the Whos do it? I always wondered that. They clearly love Christmas. They decorate the entire town with lights and wreaths and tinsel. They spare no expense. No home left untouched. No tree untrimmed. No child without a gift waiting for them. And yet when the Grinch steals it all out from under their sleeping noses, not one of them wake that Christmas morning and scream or have a meltdown. Every man, woman, and child Who simply accepts that all the pomp and circumstance of Christmas is gone and goes outside to join hands with neighbors and sing. It makes me think that instead of dressing their town to bring Christmas, they already have Christmas inside and dress the town to express it. It would mean that their gifts are given purely as fits of generosity instead of out of any sense of duty or reciprocal gain. It would mean that all their decor is merely attempting to show what is already glittering and shining and celebrating in their hearts year round. So that when it’s all whisked away it just... doesn’t matter. It was just an expression. Nothing changes. Christmas was always inside and so they simply sing about it. It’s a beautifully idealistic and touching notion. And yet... isn’t it achievable? Isn’t it actually, underneath it all, about whoever you’re with and what’s in your heart?
That’s what changed the Grinch. That understanding forced his heart to grow three sizes larger and brought him careening into sudden community with others. The message is a simple one and it never goes out of style. Christmas does not, in fact, come from a store. Christmas is definitely about something more. And every year we forget so every year this little story and little film become profoundly important all over again.
- Corinne Simpson