Forgiveness, community, and the Grinch
The Grinch's real lesson isn't about the true meaning of Christmas
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Tis the season for holiday stories, and as I’m wont to do I’ve already read Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas1 several times this year. The story is probably the second most famous tale2 about the true meaning of Christmas, and I love it.
But every time I read the Grinch, I’m struck by a deeper, but sometimes overlooked, theme: Unconditional forgiveness is what makes a community work. In other words, the Grinch is about a community that welcomes back an outcast (and criminal) with open arms. It’s less a tale about anti-materialism than it is about compassion and mercy.
Lets look briefly at the story.
The Grinch himself lives high above Whoville. The book actually mentions that the Grinch has been living as a hermit for 53 years — a specific amount of time that implies his isolation is finite and may have been preceded by a period in which he lived in society. The idea that he was once a Who himself is further supported by the fact that, as Christmas draws near, the Grinch is well-aware of how the Whos will celebrate. He knows about the public rituals (singing around a tree in the town square) and the private activities (feasting, exchanging gifts, playing games, etc.). The Grinch is, pretty clearly, a former Who3.
The Grinch of course hates Christmas, and so he resolves to steal all the presents, decor, and food from every house in Whoville. And it works. Over the course of Christmas Eve night, the Grinch robs every household in town, thinking that such a crime will “stop Christmas from coming.”
The climax of the story — at least as it’s conventionally understood — comes soon thereafter as the Grinch, about to dump his loot off the side of a mountain, hears the Whos singing down below. He realizes he didn’t stop Christmas from coming and his shriveled heart grows three sizes. Triumphantly, he bolts back down to Whoville to return all the stolen goods.
Up until this point, the Grinch looks a lot like other true-meaning-of-Christmas stories. The Grinch is a scrooge who learns the error of his ways.
But what comes next is even more important: The Whos down in Whoville welcome the Grinch back.
This conclusion is significant. As I mentioned above, the Grinch wasn’t a stranger to the town. They would have known who he was. More importantly, the Whos would have put two and two together and realized the Grinch robbed them. His past behavior, known animosity toward Christmas, and the fact that he showed up with all the presents right after they were stolen would have made his guilt painfully obvious.
If this were a western, the Grinch would have been summarily hanged. If it were real life, he would at least be jailed. And I know if someone robbed my house on Christmas Eve then showed up and returned the presents I would be furious and looking for revenge.
But that’s not what the Whos did. They didn’t arrest him, cut him off or cast him out. Instead, they gave him the seat of honor at their Christmas feast, his Christmas Eve transgression apparently forgotten4.
Obviously the Grinch is not real life and doesn’t explore policy nuances. The Grinch isn’t a treatise on the criminal justice system.
But I think the story’s final act gets at a profound idea. The true meaning of Christmas, the Grinch argues, isn’t rejecting materialism and miserliness — valuable as those ideas may be — but forgiving transgressors and welcoming them back into the community.
This is an especially applicable idea right now, in a period when polarization over various cultural and political issues is getting worse. Nearly everyday, it seems, I check Facebook and see someone urging people to dump their friends and family who disagree with them on some particular issue. Estrangement isn’t just an unfortunate coincidence, sometimes it’s an explicit goal.
I don’t know how people have so many friends and family members that they can afford to cut off loved ones for the transgression du jour.
But more importantly, the Grinch argues that it’s simply better to forgive people than punish or exile them. I can’t say I’m especially good at this idea, but I started this newsletter because I suspected many of us would like to have larger communities than we currently do. There are plenty of ways to build those communities, however in the end the Grinch argues that community is made up of people who can stand to be in each other’s presence not because they have identical values or never wronged each other, but because they are willing to forgive.
Thanks for reading to the end of this post. If you enjoyed it, someone else might too.
Headlines to read this week:
“Every functional family, defined here as people willing to be in relationships without end, relies on forgiveness at some level, and surprisingly often that forgiveness is routine, spontaneous and possibly beyond merit. Not that it’s easy. But the alternative is even harder.”
Did you know that was the name of the book? I’ve read the story hundreds of times and seen the animated film many times to boot, and always thought the name was The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. There’s a bit of Mandela effect going on here.
Second most famous after Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
I believe some of the more recent adaptions of the Grinch delve further into the character’s backstory. The only one of these that I’ve seen was the 2000 Jim Carrey version. I don’t remember much from that movie except that it seemed to be such a mess that any themes were lost. I don’t know that any of these subsequent adaptions are “canon” in the way that the book and 1966 animated adaptation are, and either way those are the two texts I’m referring to in this post.
Presumably the Grinch himself also forgave the Whos. The lackluster modern adaptions aside, it’s not clear what initially alienated the Grinch from the town and there’s no textual evidence to suggest anyone actually wronged the Grinch. The texts actually speculate on the lack of motivation, suggesting the Grinch’s grinchiness may be the result of ill-fitting shoes or a shrunken heart — things that suggest maybe the Grinch wasn’t wronged after all. (Though of course the narrator of the story could be unreliable, which raises a host of other fun questions.) In any case, I think the story is about a community that collectively forgives a transgressor. However, if we wanted to read into it a bit more, it’d probably be safe to say that the Grinch suffered some slight in the past, and had to let go of that in order to rejoin the community.