Growing up, there were three never-miss holiday specials: Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Those weren’t the only specials my sister and I watched—she was partial to Frosty The Snowman, I thought A Garfield Christmas had some catchy tunes—but those three were sacred. If we missed Rudolph proving his worth, or Charlie Brown demonstrating his poor consumer skills, or the Grinch and his dog Max committing 39 and a half consecutive life sentences’ worth of grand larceny, it wasn’t really Christmas. Kids are weird like that. We didn’t have any serious religion, but we knew how things worked: December 25 was magic, but it was only magic if you followed the rules. That meant no peeking when Mom brought in bags from the mall, opening each day of the Advent calendar right before breakfast, listening to Kenny Rogers’ Christmas In America a dozen times, and, of course, making sure we were in front of the TV when the holy trinity of animation aired. The holidays didn’t just happen; they had to be created, and each separate observance of our peculiar faith helped bring Santa Claus that much closer to town.
These days, between DVRs, DVDs, and YouTube, it’s easier than ever to watch what you want to watch, when you want to watch it, but back then, my sister and I (and other kids like us) had to make an effort. We pored over the listings in the newspaper, and argued our case in the event of scheduling conflicts. Dad had a VCR, but using it was like cheating. The specials had to be watched “live,” as if that meant something for a rerun of a show that was two or three decades old. And commercials were carefully studied, dissected, and parsed for possible talismanic import. As a grown-up, I’m not sure I miss the fevered, blinkered intensity of being 10, when a clip from a scary movie could stop me from sleeping for days, and when I was liable as not to spend the night of December 24 throwing up from “excitement,” but man, I miss thinking television was that kind of cool. Not just entertaining or artistic or moving, but a device through which you could change the world, if you only paid enough attention.
I still try to make time for what specials I can, although even with all the convenience, I don’t always manage it. Rankin and Bass have become the high-school pals I only remember anymore via Facebook; someone will link to a clip from Rudolph or A Year Without Santa, and I’ll think, “Oh, yeah, we had some good times,” and then I’ll feel vaguely embarrassed, like something very silly just happened and I took it seriously. Charlie Brown is still a requirement, sure, but if I forget to record the show when it airs, I don’t rent it or download it. It doesn’t seem as important as it used to, even though I still think it’s a classic. The Grinch, though… The Grinch is unique. I’m not going to argue that his special is artistically superior to CB’s, because I don’t believe that’s true, and it would be terribly boring to try and rate one against the other. But I own a hardcover copy of Dr. Seuss’s original book (first published in 1957), and I have a stuffed Grinch doll sitting on my desk proudly wearing his duplicitous Santa suit. I even sat through that awful Jim Carrey movie in theaters. Every time we get past Thanksgiving and Christmas shows its sharp, candy-cane teeth, I get a little nervous. And every time, I remember The Grinch, and that makes it better.
What is it about How The Grinch Stole Christmas that sets it apart from the rest? Chuck Jones’ animated adaptation (which first aired in 1966) is hilarious, for one, in a way that no other Christmas special has ever really managed to touch. Charlie Brown has its laughs, but they’re by and large melancholy, laden with irony or satire or misery, and most other specials are too caught up in being heartwarming to get much beyond the occasional sappy slapstick, bad pun, or pop-culture nod. Grinch, though, is a hoot from start to (nearly) finish. Sure, there’s sentiment, but it’s saved for the last three minutes or so; everything up to that is pure, malicious bliss.
Some of this comes from the original poem: Seuss’ illustrations, The Grinch’s snickering malevolence, and the good doctor’s love of silly words. But Jones brings his own distinctive style to play. Best known as one of the driving forces behind Looney Tunes, the animator manages to make a lot out of what is, in some ways, a pretty thin story. The original tale runs a little over 1,500 words, and only two characters have speaking lines; only three are ever named. In expanding it for the small screen, writers Irv Spector and Bob Ogle added a Seuss-like listing of Who toys, and a segment following The Grinch and his dog/reindeer Max on their frenzied race to Whoville. Max went from being a one-off joke to one of the story’s most memorable faces, and the back-and-forth between mutt and master has the sort of silent-comedy brilliance that only animation can really pull off. (The bit where The Grinch whistles for Max, and the dog cheerfully bounds onto the sleigh, thinking he’s going to for a ride, kills me every time.) Over its 25-minute running time, The Grinch is a marvelous example of how to take already-great source material and translate it into a new medium in a way that showcases the strengths of that medium without losing the intent of the original work.
Because for all its humor, The Grinch also gets that there’s something, well, a little scary about The Grinch. His introduction—first the shot of the snow, then the peaceful, colorful town, the happy singing, and a loooooong pan up the mountains to see a weird green thing, like Kermit’s taller, pissier brother—is ominous. He looks, maybe not monstrous, but dangerous, grim, and not at all given to hugs and cookies and merry-much-of-anything. Boris Karloff (Imhotep, Frankenstein’s monster, and Fu Manchu) supplies his voice. The only decking this guy would do would be in someone’s face; the only snowballs he’d throw would have rocks in them.
But at the same time, it’s a meanness that’s not hard to understand. So many fictional Scrooges are viewed from the outside as nasty, joyless creatures who only exist to be redeemed. While that’s technically true of The Grinch, there’s something familiar about him. He’s not greedy. His biggest complaint about Christmas? The damn kids ruin his morning with their noise, and all that running around and gobbling food, and then the singing! Sure, the Whos aren’t really hurting anyone, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t annoying. This is a kind of scary I can understand, that I’m sure most of us can understand: that unpleasant, snarling part inside me that doesn’t care about family or togetherness or joy and just wishes everybody would shut the hell up and leave me alone. For three-quarters of its running time, The Grinch is a celebration of vileness, selfishness, perfidy, and contempt. The Grinch is such a jerk, he gets a whole song about his jerkiness. Sure, he’s not a serial killer or anything; singer Thurl Ravenscroft’s bass voice is so low he sounds like a chummy bassoon, and when little Cindy-Lou Who shows up, The Grinch’s biggest concern is making sure the kid goes back to bed quickly without getting in the way of his plans. But until the climax of the story, The Grinch is a bad, bad guy. He enjoys his work, and so do we.
All of this would probably be enough for the special to win its place in my heart, but what really puts this one over the top is the ending. It’s not just the redemption angle; pretty much every Christmas story every filmed has a redemption angle. After pulling the wool over Cindy-Lou’s eyes and thoroughly ransacking the town, The Grinch and Max head up to the top of Mt. Crumpit to dump all their ill-gotten gains. Before pushing the sleigh into oblivion, The Grinch realizes the sun has come up, so he listens for the sound of Whos sobbing their eyes out over all their missing crap. Instead of sobbing, though, he hears singing. Which leads the Grinch to thinking, which leads to…:
It’s a lovely moment, and I don’t want to dissect it too much, because its beauty lies in its simplicity. That simplicity is what sets The Grinch closer to my heart than any other story of the season. There’s no speech about Jesus, and Santa doesn’t show up to save the day. If you look closely at that glowing mass that rises above the Whos as they sing, you’ll see there isn’t anything inside. Which could mean a whole lot of things, or could mean nothing at all, but what it means to me is that Christmas isn’t anything special in and of itself, not even for the Whos. Christmas is something you have to make happen, not through “packages, boxes, or bags,” but through the act of warmth and love and kindness.
The rituals I had as a child no longer hold their power for me, which is as it should be; if they still did, I’d be a crazy person. But that means I have to find new rituals, and new ways to believe I can be redeemed for all the endless, stupid crap any of us does just to get through the day. Every December, I spend three weeks grousing, complaining, cursing at crowds, and in general hating just about everybody. But at some point, I pause; I put a hand to my ear; and I listen for who might be singing. How The Grinch Stole Christmas is a beautiful piece of television: riotously funny, sincere, and almost shockingly kind. It offers the chance of redemption, no savior required.
Tomorrow: A Christmas episode from one of TV’s biggest hits… but not the episode you’re thinking of.