Dr. Seuss & How the Secular Humanist Stole Christmas

It is telling when the deficiencies of the adult world are told in the pages of children’s books. An instance of this has been immortalized in Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel’s cherished story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The tale of the Grinch is beloved, and for good reason, too. It is a wicked, wacky little work that rolls with irony, imagination, wit, and rhyme. Though worthy of young listeners and young readers alike, it nonetheless suffers from a type of spiritual silence that is typical of the times. In keeping with the modern Christmas malaise, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! presents a concept of Christmas that is decidedly Christ-less; but, at the same time, it hints with a sort of longing that Christmas means a little bit more than both mere materialism and mere philanthropy.

Children enjoy the writings and illustrations of Dr. Seuss, and Dr. Seuss’s writings and illustrations are enjoyable for their zany energy and wild, colorful chaos. But, let it be said at the outset, Dr. Seuss’s children’s literature is not high children’s literature. Comparing the poetry of Seuss to that of Pyle, Milne, or Stevenson creates a clear demarcation. Though delightful, Dr. Seuss is reflective of an age of growing illiteracy and inattention. Seuss is flashy, frenetic, and, for the most part, flimsy—though not without charm. Mother Goose remains the sine qua non, but Dr. Seuss serves well as a springboard to higher planes of the nursery, whetting the appetite for deeper, purer poetry.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is among Dr. Seuss’s best books, to be sure, and has become firmly embedded in the American Christmas canon; but not because it bears the magic of Dr. Moore’s jolly old elf; or the miracle of Miss Potter’s tailor; or the might of Mr. Dickens’ carol. It is a silly satire of Santa Claus and the giving-and-getting hype that Christmas has become. The Grinch is a grouch that lurks in a cave atop Mount Crumpit. He hates Christmas and glowers down in hate upon the Whos of Whoville who love Christmas. The noise, noise, noise of the Whos celebrating Christmas with toys and joys and more toys aggravates the Grinch beyond the pale of psychological endurance. So, after fifty-three years of agony, the Grinch plots to dress up as Santa Claus, to descend upon Whoville on Christmas Eve, and to pinch the Whos’ presents, food, and cheerful trappings—to keep Christmas from coming by stealing it. His holiday heist accomplished, the gloating Grinch is flummoxed to hear the same sounds of glorious song rise from Whoville on Christmas morning. His heart, two sizes too small, swells as he beholds in disbelief the beginning of a great truth about Christmas:

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 story of the Grinch is fine stuff, but, in the end, it is just fine fluff. It scratches on the surface of the central, sacrificial secret of Christmas, yet, as the modern world tends to do, it stops short and settles for the superficial. Christmas has been boiled down to giving and getting, a problem which is often sugared over with “good-will-toward-men” clichés that attempt justification. The real problem is that the spiritual element of the season has been lost. As can be seen in other holy days crafted into holidays, the things that the Church has established as upright are the very things modernity tends to turn upside-down. Instead of Easter commemorating the most significant event in human history, it is about a most insignificant pastel bunny. Instead of Valentine’s Day commemorating the patron saint of love, it is about the patron saint of sentimental greeting cards. Instead of Halloween commemorating the holy triumph of life over death, it is about the horrific triumph of death over life. Instead of Christmas commemorating peace on earth, it is about pressure and worth. But Christmas, and all its kith and kin, means a little bit—in fact, a great deal—more, and the altruistic balm of secular humanism is insufficient to assuage the pangs of the hungry soul.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is good, notwithstanding, and that for several reasons. It is good because it calls materialism into question. It is good because it features a Dickensian conversion. It is good because it gives children musical language and a whimsical narrative. It is good because it has a good moral. But even though the tale is ethical—as Seuss usually is—its finale is as equivocal as “Happy Holidays.” The central issue is that, while the story is clearly critical of consumerism, it is itself a clearly consumerist effort. As a product created for sales, the book is aimed at mass appeal for a mass audience, and crafted such that it may be taken as either religious or secular. This approach may be good marketing, but it is bad art because there is no definitive decision. The Grinch is ultimately too PC to be a great story. Dr. Seuss himself admitted to the noncommittal nature of the Grinch’s conclusion:

I got hung up getting the Grinch out of the mess. I got into a situation where I sounded like a second-rate preacher or some biblical truism… Finally in desperation … without making any statement whatever, I showed the Grinch and the Whos together at the table, and made a pun of the Grinch carving the “roast beast…” I had gone through thousands of religious choices, and then after three months it came out like that.

On the other hand, a clear religious declaration would be rather strange in this off-the-wall world of bizarre creatures. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is, instead, a pleasant platform for parents to ask children what that “little bit more” is that the Grinch muses about, thus providing a wholesome and interesting chance to fill a gap in the modern perspectives of Christmas and its popular platitudes. Make no mistake, gifts play an important part in the liturgy of Christmas, though that part has been infiltrated and inflated by a commercial culture that interprets the American pillar of “freedom of religion” as “freedom from religion,” distilling the sacred holiness of the season into secular humanism. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! offers an occasion to show young readers that feel-good-fuzziness is not enough. Christmas … certainly … means a little bit more.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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