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So here it is, Merry Christmas. . . but not everybody’s having fun

by
23 December 2022

Fergus Butler-Gallie speaks up for those who struggle with Christmas cheer

Alamy

From the Universal Pictures film The Grinch in 2018

From the Universal Pictures film The Grinch in 2018

“MERRY Christmas. May I say a word for canonising the Grinch?” This is how I like to begin the earnest theological discussions with which I try and pepper parties in the non-Advent season that leads up to the Feast of the Incarnation.

For the uninitiated, the Grinch is a fictional character created by Dr Seuss. He lives on a cliff overlooking Whoville, a town of small, furry humanoids celebrated for their warm hearts and welcoming spirits.

They are always smiling and happy, and often burst into song; by contrast, the Grinch is mean, misanthropic, and bad-tempered. He especially hates Christmas, and all the noises associated with it — notably Christmas carols.

But he is, in many ways, a Hero of the Faith. As an outsider, an outcast, one who suffers for his beliefs, he has much in common with others in the calendar of saints. He also has a healthy, Augustinian diagnosis of human nature: the Whos are presumably subject to original sin. He is a lone advocate for a Christmas of awe and fear amidst the rampant commercialism of Whoville.

Indeed the Grinch is, in many ways, a good Advent figure: he specifically hates the Christmas “season”, he objects to the Whos hanging stockings and mistletoe wreaths before the actual arrival of Christmas, and he seeks to bring about good Advent wailing from the Whos, saying of their cries that they are a noise he “simply MUST hear”.

In short, the Grinch has a much healthier attitude to the festive season than we do here and now, and we might learn much from him.

 

HERE I must declare an interest and confess a personal dislike for Christmas. Hence my affinity with the Grinch, and campaign to canonise him; we all like those saints who remind us of ourselves, not least because they also remind us of the possibility of our own redemption.

My hatred of Christmas is not a theological objection but a practical one; not an issue with the idea of Christmas but with its outworking. I struggle with the relentlessness of it all: the forced smiles, the indigestion, the John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band, the crap jokes, the hackneyed sermon analogies, the mawkishness, the having-to-be-made-aware of Michael Bublé. All combine to render me even grumpier than usual.

AlamyI am the Grinch that stole Christmas pie selling at a small bakery in Liverpool

We find ourselves living in a sort of perpetual Whoville for most of November and December. I know many love it, but spare a thought for those of us who have more in common with the Grinch — for the obvious insincerity of a modern Christmas has, I’m afraid, the opposite effect on me from the one intended, and renders the milk of human kindness much sourer.

In truth, I am a Christian because of, not despite, my cynicism, and forced jollity has never been my strong suit.

 

AT FIRST, I suspect, this dislike of the festive season was rooted in the realities of parish ministry. All those on the front line will know the hurriedness, the occasional thoughtlessness, the endless being on your feet which characterise a clerical Christmas.

Now, though, as those things have been taken from me, the crux of the season’s pain is their absence. And, when you’ve been turned away from a church at Christmas, some of the glint goes out of the tinsel, and you find yourself more sympathetic to Scrooge, and the Grinch, and the rest of those who, we were told, got Christmas wrong. In fact, you begin to suspect that they might have got it right.

This grinchiness probably makes me unattractive; it certainly makes me less missional as, year after year, the Church’s Christmas offering looks more like the world’s.

But I suspect that, even among the clergy (especially among the clergy?), I am not alone. This shouldn’t lead to approbation, or accusations of driving the world away, or rejecting the Christ. Plenty of us were made as Grinches, and the manger is as much a hallowing of our humanity as it is of the humanity of the bubbliest and bounciest Yuletide enthusiast. From the principle of the universality of the incarnation is drawn every other doctrine from the life of Jesus: our faith had been in vain if it were otherwise.

 

SO IT IS that I have come to believe that there is a holy Grinchiness. For, if Christmas is only the glitz, the tat, and the faux friendliness, it won’t see us through the misery of the new year.

Part of Christianity is about being counter-cultural, and I take great delight in being as infectiously garrulous as possible while the world descends into the grim Puritanism of a 21st-century January.

If Christmas is about anything, it is about abiding. Or, put another way, if the Holy Family can put up with the backyard of an inn as the place from which to bring salvation into the world, I’m sure I can tolerate a month or so of discount mince pies and Wizzard.

That being said, there are things about normal Christmas which appeal even to someone as grumpy as me. It Came Upon The Midnight Clear, for all the glorious Victorian soupiness of its Sullivan tune, provides in its words an antidote to the saccharine naivete which can so easily seep into the festive season. Its Unitarian origins aside, it speaks in mystic and compelling terms of the power of the Incarnation. That it implores us — “ye men of strife” — to “hush our noise” as “ever o’er [its] Babel-sounds, the blessed angels sing” speaks to me, in particular, as another painful Christmas looms.

 

TELLINGLY, the Grinch’s primary objection to the Whoville version of Christmas is the “NOISE NOISE NOISE”. He is right: so much of this season is about literal and figurative noise, which threatens to drown out anything else.

Yet such is the power of Christmas, such is the depth of the truths told by the story of the incarnation, that many millions of us still hear that song at this time of year, and in unlikely places. I remember being keenly aware of it, in the darkness of an empty church in Liverpool, as I locked up after midnight mass some years ago. This Advent, I have known it in the early morning mists that creep off the Romney Marsh. Strange places to be hallowed — but then, so is a manger.

And so, despite my sympathies with the Grinch, I can just about hear the angels’ song at this time of year.

But to me it is the distant echo of pre-existent good across a post-lapsarian landscape. It sings of Christmas, no doubt, but of Christmas that is not twee comfort but cosmic consolation.

It is that same consolation which I seek when, every year, alone, in the dark of the almost time between midnight and Christmas morning, I re-read Luke’s narrative of the Christmas story: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.”

To repeat this, and so rehallow a set time of year, every year; to give over a particular calendar space as being sacred to the reality of God become Man, is as strange as it is beautiful. And, every year, this strangeness and beauty captivate me again, console me again.

Back to Whoville, and the great challenge of the season: how are we to whisper of this wonderful strangeness amidst the noise, noise, noise? Ora pro nobis, Mr Grinch.

 

The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie is a teacher and writer.

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