The Word Engaged
“A joy to be shared.”
Although I’ve never read the tale or seen the film, reliable sources tell me that “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is about a jealous critter, posing as Santa Claus, who steals all the gifts set aside for children. A little girl spies the theft; the rest the children, undaunted by their loss, celebrate Christmas anyway.
There are all sorts of Grinches who steal Christmas. Just think of the moves to call it “Xmas” or of Christmas stamps without the Madonna and Child. Less overtly, we are treated to phrases like “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings.”
In a way, that’s robbery. After all, the only reason we are celebrating is a baby whose birth changed the course of history. Even some theologians seem to steal Christmas away with pronouncements that such a miracle could never have happened.
Like the young girl and all her friends in the story, the little ones—the little people—somehow celebrate Christmas anyway. Perhaps that’s how Christmas celebrations actually got started in the early fourth century.
If the Roman emperor insisted on having his birthday celebrated, the little people decided that they would celebrate the birth of Jesus. If the cultural powers worshiped the sun god at the year’s end, Christians would exalt the Son of God.
The high and mighty eventually caught on. By the year 500, the church made Christmas a special feast. Three decades later, the Roman Empire followed suit. Commemorating the birth of Jesus spread throughout Europe; and by 600, Augustine of Canterbury baptized ten thousand converts on that holy day. For almost a millennium, Christmas was the special feast of the poor, the common people, the little ones.
By the sixteenth century, however, with its political, national, and ecclesiastical wars, Christmas was disappearing from many places. The Puritans condemned and abolished Christmas as something pagan and idolatrous. They even tried to make observing it a sin. In 1642 services were banned. No decorations were allowed. Two years later Christmas was declared a time of fast and penance. In 1647 Parliament, that corporate Grinch, totally banned Christmas. Markets were ordered to stay open. Longer work hours were enforced. The little people did not like this at all. There were riots. Ten thousand people demonstrated in Kent.
The monarchy, thinking that plum pudding, mince pie, goose, and “good will” could make up for the theft, allowed for secular celebration, not wanting to seem a Scrooge. But even in the 1700s, when Charles Wesley was penning “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” a more refined mind pronounced: “There is no place for Christmas in the modern world.”
Although Christmas was outlawed in New England until 1850, and people were forced to work that day while their children were ordered to school, subversive practices from olden times persisted. Folklore defied the Grinches: there were reports of cattle and deer on their knees, birds singing in the snow, bees humming in harmony, animals talking. Trees, decked with fruit, promised a new Eden. Breaded wafers and glowing candles hung from branches.
As it was then, so it will be. There is a mystery in Christmas far brighter than presents, more persistent than the great wars or personal sorrows that seem to steal it away. Christmas is about the child who became the bread of life, the baby who beamed as the light of the world.
The Grinch, by the way, had a change of heart. Apparently what did the trick was seeing the joy of children.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University