As a child, I was obsessed with Christmas TV specials. There were no Hanukkah shows with the adventures of brave Maccabees battling decadent Hellenists to be found, of course, so I pleaded with my mother for permission to watch the Christmas ones. In response she developed—like many other Jewish moms, I suspect—a somewhat rabbinical attitude, deeming some shows kosher and others trayf. These decisions, I believe, were based on the suspected “religious” content of each show, as if there were something dangerous and seductive about Christianity, which, in the form of Claymation, could infect our souls, and lead to an inexorable desire to convert or, god forbid, intermarry.
My mother proved remarkably lenient. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman were permissible, as were all the shows about the life and times of Saint Nick, such as Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town and The Year Without a Santa Claus. (A Charlie Brown Christmas would seem to have crossed the line, with its reading from the Gospel of Luke, but I suppose that Charlie Brown was so ubiquitous during the holiday season that my mother simply could not forbid us kids from watching.)
The secularity of these specials, it seemed, rendered Christmas safe, innocuous. There was no mention of God or the birth of Jesus (except for that lapse by the goody-goody Linus), the plots often revolving around some threat to Santa’s distribution of presents to all of the good kids. All in all, these shows celebrated a non-religious, non-threatening holiday, a holiday about catchy songs and toys and generic seasonal good cheer. A holiday, it seemed, even Jews could participate in.
My favorite was the 1966 Dr. Seuss classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas, based on the 1957 book.
We all know the story: the dyspeptic Grinch lives alone on Mt. Crumpit but for his loyal, long-suffering dog, Max, and is tormented year after year by the terrific noise rising from Who-ville below on Christmas morning. To preserve his peace and quiet, the Grinch comes up with a plan to keep Christmas from coming. Dressed up in a homemade Santa Claus suit, he descends upon Who-ville and goes house to house, creeping down chimneys and slithering through hallways, stealing everything he can get his green, grinchy hands on. His booty piled high onto his sleigh, he rides up to the peak of Mt. Crumpit, and prepares to dump it!
But, as dawn rises over Who-ville, the Whos young and old gather in the square, grasp one another’s hands, and—sing! The exhausted Grinch puzzles that, despite his efforts, Christmas came, “it came just the same.” And then the Grinch’s too-small heart miraculously grows three times. Thus transformed, he rescues the sled, returns to Who-ville, gives back all the gifts and decorations and food, and finds himself an honored member of the community: “And he … HE HIMSELF…! The Grinch carved the roast beast!”
It’s a sweet and simple tale of sin and redemption. Yet there was something about the Grinch—his alienation, his resentment of the Whos and their noises, their piety and easy sense of community—that I identified with. He may have been a borderline sociopath, with “spiders in his brain” and “garlic in his soul,” but you have to admit there was an impish delight in his mischief, a vivacious naughtiness that those other Christmas villains—buffoons like Burgermeister Meisterburger and Frosty’s nemesis Professor Hinkle—utterly lacked. Those guys were simple meanies or klutzes; the Grinch was formidable. I was completely seduced by his schadenfreude.
And so every year while watching the show I was half inspired to enlist my siblings and our dog and run through town pulling down the Christmas decorations and hiding them in the basement. Of course, I knew that this would prove useless, that, like the Grinch, I could probably not keep Christmas from coming, that my heart might grow and my face would shine, and I should allow myself to be overtaken by the temptations of the season.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that even these kosher specials could be seen to have deep religious significance. Many were thinly veiled Christian allegories. The moral of A Charlie Brown Christmas was apparent enough: a lesson in Christian humility, with the poor, naked, despised tree a symbol for Christ. Frosty the Snowman was clearly a parable of the resurrection (more apt for Easter, perhaps, but what can you do?). Rudolph? Well, he’s kind of a light unto the gentiles, right? And, I mean, isn’t it obvious that poor Hermey the misfit elf really is a Jewish dentist?
For all its charms, the story of the Grinch is a standard-issue conversion narrative; his transformation from persecutor to honored member of Who-ville resembles the conversion of Saul/Paul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. According to the New Testament accounts, Paul was on his way to Damascus to arrest followers of Jesus when he experienced a “blinding light,” fell to the ground, and heard a voice inquiring, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” The Grinch experiences his road to Damascus moment high up there on the peak of Mt. Crumpit. In evangelical terminology, he’s born again. (One could also consider the Grinch’s long suffering dog, Max, a quiet Christ figure, horns tied to his head, whipped as he pulls the Grinch’s sled full of toys to the top of Mt. Crumpit, bearing his burden yet always waiting by the old monster’s side.)
If we do see him as a stand-in for the apostle Paul, would it be so far off the mark to regard him as—a Jew? Or rather, a certain kind of Christian fantasy of a Jew. And wouldn’t that make his resentment a parable of Jewish resentment, a reflection of all those Jewish parents who wouldn’t allow their kids to participate in the magic of Christmas, not only its “real” spiritual meaning, but its all too consumerist one as well? (For the record, despite rumors to the contrary, Dr. Seuss—Theodor Seuss Geisel—wasn’t Jewish.)
Critics have often stressed that conversion narratives are inherently unreliable and self-justifying. The Grinch’s misanthropy—or, rather, his mis-Whophy—and depravity illuminate what he becomes, highlighting the radicality of his transformation. Yet the wicked curl of his grin when he thinks up his plan, the sheer fun he seems to be having while pursuing his “wonderful awful idea,” draws the viewer in, establishing a kind of weird empathy. We find enjoyment, do we not, in the Grinch’s grand crime?
So I wonder whether How the Grinch Stole Christmas intends for us to be seduced by the Grinch, becoming a conspirator in his crimes, in order to discover, in a most Pauline manner, our own sinfulness, and thereby participate more fully in the Grinch’s redemption. Are we to identify with him so that we too may become Whos? Are we being carried along to our own conversations? Is the Grinch a subtle vehicle of Christian propaganda, perhaps more seductive and dangerous than anything my mother could have imagined?
And yet, if I happen upon him while surfing the channels, there is no doubt that I will stop and linger. And when the sun rises over Who-ville and the Whos begin to clasp their hands and sing their Fah who for-aze, I may, just perhaps, begin to sing along.