The Christmas season is when Americans, in between clawing each other to get to toys so they can prove their love for others through money, pretend to be interested in love and forgiveness. Although the Christmas season keeps crawling like a glacier steadily forward into October and even September, the Christmas spirit usually lasts from about the tenth to the twenty-fourth of December, but only intermittently during that time frame.
So it is during this time that we get our two most beloved stories of redemption, both with very similar plots and themes, but one, in my opinion, better than the other. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the story of a heartless being who attempts to satisfy his own selfish needs by denying joy to others. After a Christmas Eve misadventure, he allegedly discovers the next morning the True Meaning of Christmas and changes his ways. He ends the story by carving meat. Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas is exactly the same story, only with more Whos. (Dickens’ tale only has one: Tiny Tim.)
The two stories also share the same fate of being the victims of America’s abusive type of love. A Christmas Carol has become the vehicle of choice for actors looking to do some kind of “tour de force”. Every season we get at least one new version, with a star-studded cast (this year it’s Kelsey Grammar as Scrooge!), each time touted as though no one’s ever thought of filming the classic story. And we all know what horrors were inflicted upon the Grinch, thank you Jim Carrey and Ron Howard.
But the two are not equivalent in my mind. In fact, while he may have been the greatest novelist of all time, I think Dickens’ story completely pales next to Seuss’. Not only do I think it’s a lesser tale of redemption, I think it’s completely misrepresented as such a tale in the first place. I think we’ve been scammed.
Sure, sure, Scrooge buys the fattest goose (at least, the fattest one left on the shelf by Christmas morning) and brings it over to the Cratchet residence to share cheer and goodwill and whatnot. Whatever. My point is not that Scrooge’s behavior doesn’t change; we’re told that it does, for the rest of his life. My point is that Scrooge, a man who lived his pre-ghost-visitation life motivated only by self-interest, changes those ways simply through self-interest. What is it that finally motivates Scrooge to change? Simple: he’s afraid of dying alone and unloved. He can’t abide not being liked. His change isn’t a real change, but simply a different manifestation of his selfishness. Now I grant that Tiny Tim and whoever else benefitted from his newfound love for humanity didn’t care whether or not the change was genuinely motivated. But nevertheless the moral one is to take away from A Christmas Carol is this: be good or no one will like you. That’s a pretty lukewarm lesson.
The Grinch, on the other hand, standing on Mount Crumpet, has a bona fide change of heart. A literal one, in fact, as “his heart grew three sizes that day.” His returning of the material trappings of Christmas to the Whos and carving of the roast beast are only outward manifestations of a genuine change. The Grinch is not shown that nobody likes him. He isn’t made to be the sole person weeping over his grave. His change comes not through self-pity but through genuine revelation. And his change, in addition to spurring his actions, fills his very being to the core: he gains (temporarily, perhaps) the strength of ten Grinches, plus two.
Though we’re told in the story that Scrooge stays good for the rest of his life, we’re given no such information regarding the Grinch. We don’t need it. It’s obvious to anyone reading the story that the Grinch has changed his ways. Dickens has to tell us that Scrooge’s change is permanent.
(This is not to say that the Grinch story is perfect, however. It does suffer from the same problem of Beauty and the Beast, which is this: if you learn to disregard outer appearances and focus instead on inner beauty your reward will be…a pleasant outer appearance. D’oh! The Whos prove that they don’t need jing-tinglers and fan-toozlers to appreciate the holiday and thus are rewarded with the return of their jing-tinglers and fan-toozlers.)
So this Christmas season, when you pause to try and figure out why the hell you’re going through all this hoo-hah, take a moment and try to think more of the Grinch than Scrooge. If you seek to be a better person, don’t do it so that everyone will like you. Do it because it’s the right thing to do. I can’t guarantee an increase in heart mass or enhanced strength, though making such a change has been shown in laboratory tests to reduce or even eliminate nighttime spirit visitations.