You’re a Mean One,
“The term grinchy shall apply when Christmas spirit is in short supply”—so says The Book of Who, a fictional tome featured in the Jim Carrey vehicle How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000). Since the modern holiday’s popular reinvention in the 19th century, the commercialization and secularization surrounding Christmas have steadily risen. But grinches, scrooges and assorted devilish figures have haunted winter festivities since their ancient pagan beginnings.
Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, invented the Grinch—a floppy, furry green grouch who dwells in a hillside cave on the outskirts of cheery Whoville. The story of the merriment-loathing creature who seethes about impending Christmas celebrations was made into an animated musical television special in 1966, narrated by horror star Boris Karloff. Basso profundo Thurl Ravenscroft enumerates the character’s repugnant qualities in the song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”
Upon hearing the Whos joyfully singing even after he has stolen all their gifts, the Grinch realizes, “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more.” Geisel’s holiday redemption tale follows the now familiar formula Charles Dickens established in his 1843 novella A Christmas Carol. Protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge’s heart is slower to thaw (for “no wind that blew was bitterer than he”), but ghosts of Christmases past, present and future bring him around. Dickens’s story has been memorably reenacted by Mister Magoo, the Muppets, the cast of Doctor Who, even Bill Murray. The 1951 film adaptation, starring Alastair Sim, and the 1970 movie musical Scrooge, with Albert Finney in the title role and Alec Guinness as Marley’s ghost, are among the most charming.
When told the poor would rather die than go to workhouses or debtors’ prisons, Ebenezer Scrooge rejoins, “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” (Scrooge echoes 19th-century economist Thomas Malthus’s ideas about solutions to overcrowding.) Charles Dickens’s misanthrope begrudgingly allows his underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit, the day off for Christmas. Today’s Ebenezer Scrooges are the big-box retailers that employ the working poor at below-subsistence wages and traditionally launch their holiday shopping season the day after Thanksgiving. Philadelphia police originally dubbed it Black Friday for the chaos shoppers caused, but the name now signifies the changeover from red ink (deficit) to black (profit) in the ledgers of many shops. In 2013 Macy’s joined Walmart, Toys “R” Us and other retail giants in—as Bloomberg Businessweek put it—“breaking the Turkey Barrier,” i.e., opening on Thanksgiving evening. Sadly, this requires employees to abandon their own family traditions on the national day of thanks. Scrooge ultimately rejects miserliness and learns “how to keep Christmas well.” But American capitalism relies on the holiday’s commercialization and having staff available for “door-busting” sales—like one in 2008 that led to the trampling death of a Walmart employee.
A 1946 Macy’s print ad depicts a boy writing a “Dear Santa” letter and a girl holding a store flyer and declaring, “You believe in Santa Claus, but I believe in Macy’s.” The copy begins, “Women are so darned practical.… Instead of writing wistful letters to Santa Claus, they count on Macy’s to make their dreams come true.” It’s easy to imagine cynical little Susan Walker, of Miracle on 34th Street, as that girl, and her mother, Doris, the NYC Macy’s events director, as the ad’s author. These two dames are no starry-eyed believers.
The film opens with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; for nearly a century, such department-store-sponsored events have heralded Santa’s arrival in town and the start of the holiday shopping season the next day, Black Friday. The relationship between the commercial rush and the spirit of goodwill is well expressed by Mr. Macy in Miracle. “Macy’s will be known as the store with a heart…that puts public service ahead of profits. And consequently, of course, we’ll make more profits.” The religious right, declaring there is a “war” on Christmas and urging shops to use the name prominently in advertisements, also proudly upholds the Christian holiday’s commercialization.
Christmas as we know it—tied to Santa Claus and evergreen trees and twinkly lights—is a secular celebration that arose from ancient pagan wintertime rites. Christians, including the Puritans, condemned the celebration of Christmas. It was even outlawed in Boston’s early years. The popularization of the holiday, with the focus on children, home and commerce, followed the publications of Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (a.k.a. “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”) and Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol (1843).
Modern-day Santa Claus passes judgment on the minors of the world, categorizing them as either naughty or nice by spying on them day and night. But many pagan traditions included a demon such as the Krampus, a lewdly long-tongued satyr-like beast of Alpine folklore who singles out misbehaving tots for torture, sometimes even kidnapping them. He often accompanies Saint Nicholas, who rewards good children while the Krampus whips the bad with branches or chains. In Miracle on 34th Street the tables are turned: Santa is judged by a child (and his department store coworkers, the courts and the press) and punished by the film’s Krampus, Granville Sawyer, an irritable psychology expert who has him committed to an insane asylum.
A sweet waif, a miracle or two, and a memorable tagline fuel many plots about the triumph of Christmas spirit over grinchiness. A Christmas Carol ends with Tiny Tim’s appeal, “God bless Us, Every One!” and in Miracle on 34th Street, Edmund Gwenn’s enchanting Kris Kringle wins over bitter divorcée Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara). Doris’s daughter, mini-grinch Susan (eight-year-old Natalie Wood), is a “progressive-school product indoctrinated against the whole idea of Santa Claus,” as The New Yorker wrote. The film’s credo, “Faith is believing in things even when common sense tells you not to,” emphasizes the power of positive thinking—and of accepting that Santa knows what’s best for those tarnished by a bad marriage or a reform-minded education.
In It’s a Wonderful Life, James Stewart, as George Bailey, becomes temporarily grinchy in response to Lionel Barrymore’s Dickensian slumlord, Mr. Potter, but experiences a Scrooge-like transformation when he submits to a guardian angel’s ministrations. Bailey returns from a tour of dismal future possibilities to find the present just dandy. In the end, he’s a beaming Bob Cratchit, hoisting his Tiny Tim–like daughter Zuzu, who, sick with a cold, proclaims, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”
We thank Charles Dickens for inventing the essential holiday word scrooge and Dr. Seuss for the equally necessary but quite different grinch. A scrooge is the person in power, a hate-filled miser who wishes the powerless ill. A grinch, conversely, is a crank, mostly harmless to everyone but him- or herself, whose wrathful disposition often comes from feeling victimized or left out. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s impoverished clerk, Bob Cratchit, has every reason to be grinchy, though he never is. It’s a Wonderful Life employs both, in a seesaw act. Businessman Mr. Potter is a thorough scrooge; actor Lionel Barrymore had also played the Dickens character in radio broadcasts and was a natural for it. George Bailey is a grinch. Even as a young boy, he’s a crabby sort, and after a lifetime of shouldering burdens left by others—and seeing his brother, Harry, conquer the world—George goes on a binge of pique, screaming at his children and their teacher, running out on his wife and attempting suicide. But like Dr. Seuss’s green monster, with “his Grinch feet ice-cold in the snow,” George realizes that his life, perhaps, “means a little bit more.”
From 1964 to 1970, a tinsel age of holiday programming, five enduring specials premiered: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. In the Peanuts special, featuring Vince Guaraldi’s appealingly jangly score, Lucy van Pelt pitches seasonal glitz (“Get the biggest aluminum tree you can find, Charlie Brown! Maybe painted pink”) and scroogian commerce (“Nickels, nickels, nickels! That beautiful sound of clinking nickels!”), but she’s more punk than villain. Corny characters, sentimental stories and treacly music define Rudolph and Santa Claus, both created in stop-motion animation. The latter’s Yule-hating brute, the Winter Warlock, keeps young Kris Kringle and his family of red-suited elves from delivering toys to deserving children. But the “strange hermit,” as postman narrator Fred Astaire calls him, is no evil Krampus (nor is Rudolph’s dentally compromised Abominable Snow Monster). All it takes is a toy and a song to turn the self-described “mean and despicable creature” into Santa’s helper. Of course, he loses his magical powers in the process. For many viewers, however, there’s no holiday fiend quite as rotten as Mr. Grinch, that “three-decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich, with arsenic sauce!”