Humbug! Scrooge! Grinch! Even if you've never read Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" or Dr. Seuss's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," you probably know what these signify, exclamation points included: They're a colorful cultural shorthand that describes joyless, cheerless grumpy behavior of some kind. In the cases of both Scrooge and the Grinch, we don’t know exactly why they are what they are. Scrooge may have become distracted by work and money. The Grinch’s shoes may be too tight or his heart too small. It’s all guesswork, really.
Here is Dickens’s description of Scrooge at the outset of the story: “Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, rasping, scraping, clutching covetous old sinner!” What beautiful language to describe a despicable person!
That all changes, though, one Christmas Eve, when Scrooge is visited by his deceased business partner, who warns him of the lasting torment that awaits him if he doesn’t redirect his life toward the values he has rejected—"charity, mercy, forebearance, and benevolence." Though Scrooge wants to believe the apparition is merely "a slight disorder of the stomach [...] an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato," he soon learns otherwise. Journeying to his past, reexamining his present, and glimpsing his future through the ministrations of three ghosts who visit him over the course of the night, Scrooge finally discovers the openness of heart that had eluded him.
The Grinch’s journey also begins on Christmas Eve and also leads to a larger ticker and new friends. The Grinch can’t stand seeing the Whos so happy, so he hatches a plot to steal their sunshine, a.k.a. their Christmas. Dressed as St. Nick, he steals into their homes and then steals “The ribbons! The wrappings! The tags! And the tinsel! The trimmings! The trappings!” (And doesn’t the internal rhyme here evoke Dickens?)
Christmas day dawns, and the Grinch expects to hear the Whos crying and wailing, but instead, they celebrate anyway, holding hands and signing. After puzzling over this bizzaro turn, the Grinch must conclude that Christmas isn’t about those things he stole. “It doesn’t come from a store” but “means a little bit more.” And this causes his heart to grow three times its size (that being one more than he needed for a normal size heart – just pointing that out).
On one hand, I want to say, well, duh. Of course life is about more than work and money, and the season of giving isn’t about stuff but the larger gesture of care. On the other hand, I’m not fool enough to think we (and by "we," I of course mean "I") don’t need to be constantly reminded of this. After all, isn’t that precisely why these stories have become so interwoven in our cultural dialogue?