by Joseph Laycock
To live in the United States in December is to be bombarded with Christmas music whenever one enters a public space. The term “Christmas creep” refers to the fact that Christmas music begins a little earlier each year (This year it began before Thanksgiving). Depending on one’s temperament, Christmas music is either a charming reminder of the season or a cloying irritant and a reminder that participating in Christmas rituals is not voluntary but expected. Despite the fact that new Christmas albums come out every year, it is not a very innovative genre. The overwhelming majority of Christmas songs piped into shopping malls and big box stores are about Santa Claus, snow, romance, or some combination thereof. The greatest outlier by far is the song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” composed in 1966 by Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel and performed by Thurl Ravenscroft (known to most Americans as the voice of Tony the Tiger announcing, “There Grrreat!”) This song contains no warm sentiments whatsoever. It is a brutal excoriation of a Christmas misanthrope, the Grinch. Although the various insults and epithets in this song are delivered in the silly and whimsical style expected of Dr. Seuss, they are still cutting. Try to imagine what would happen if you told someone, deadpan, “You have termites in your smile.” And yet this song makes the rotation alongside “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Feliz Navidad.” The persistence of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” suggests that the civic rituals of Christmas have a feature that is largely repressed. The need to ritually castigate the Grinch is the shadow of our otherwise joyful Christmas season.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas was published in 1957 and adapted into an animated feature in 1966 (narrated by Boris Karloff of Frankenstein fame). The Grinch lives in a cave atop Mount Crumpit and hates the Christmas festivities of the nearby community of Whoville, allegedly because he is disturbed by the noise they make. However, the true reason he hates Christmas is that “his heart is two-sizes too small.” Which is to say, that it is impossible for the audience to understand what motivates the Grinch. He is defective and totally other. Like a serial killer, his evil is presented as both medicalized and irredeemable. He does what he does because he is a broken creature and evil is inherent in his nature.
The Grinch’s plot is to impersonate Santa and steal all of the accoutrement of Christmas. In the film, it is during this burglary that “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” is performed. The Grinch is shown slithering down the chimney and through the living room with an evil smile on his face. Watching this as a small child, I remember being frustrated that the Grinch was oblivious to the reprimands being made about him. It seemed that if only Ravenscroft could formulate the right combination of cutting insults, the Grinch would flee and Christmas would be saved. Instead, the Grinch just continues to grin, apparently reveling in the ode to his wickedness.
As we all know, the Grinch’s plot fails when he discovers that Christmas is not defined by presents and decorations but by the community of Whoville. This revelation heals him and his heart grows three sizes larger. He returns the presents and is accepted into the community. However, the public had no use for a redeemed Grinch. And although the Grinch is one of the most popular animated characters of all time, he remained a villain in his future appearances. To meet the demand for a wicked Grinch, Dr. Seuss created Halloween is Grinch Night (1977) and The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat (1982). These were prequels depicting the Grinch’s plots before his transformation at Christmas. The Grinch is now over half a century old and is still best known for the song that celebrates his evil. In order for Christmas to be Christmas, the Grinch must be the Grinch.
“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” emphasizes that the Grinch is revolting. He nauseates us with a noxious super nos. The Grinch is not only described with repeated images of rot and decay but with images of disorder and of vile things in places where they should not and must not be. The lyrics perfectly convey Julia Kristeva’s idea of “the abject.” The abject is that which is declared unclean and banished beyond the boundaries of the symbolic order, much as the Grinch is banished to his cave on Mount Crumpit. But this banishment is necessary to construct meaning. The boundaries of the symbolic order exist largely as a function of our continual aversion to the abject.
In Powers of Horror, Kristeva suggests that “food loathing”––which often induces a physiological response of gagging and nausea––is perhaps the most primal form of the abject. Appropriately, the Grinch is compared to “a bad banana with a greasy black peel” and a “three-decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce.” His heart is “a dead tomato squashed with moldy purple spots.” But food loathing is only a metaphor for what truly revolts us about the Grinch. Kristeva explains, “It is not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, and order.” “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch” makes it clear than anything good about the Grinch has been invaded and colonized by the forces of filth and disorder. The song presents a sort of inventory of the Grinch’s compromised assets: He has termites in his smile and garlic in his soul, his brain is full of spiders and his soul is full of unwashed socks. We too could become like the Grinch if we did not have our instinct for disgust and revulsion that protects us from infection by these substances. Fortunately, we know not to touch the abject with a thirty-nine-and-a-half-foot pole.
In the most compelling line of the song, there is a breakdown in which Ravenscroft informs the Grinch, “Your soul is an appalling dump heap overflowing the most disgraceful assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable, mangled up in tangled up knots.” The garbage of the Grinch’s soul can only be described in vague superlatives because it exists beyond what can be described, let alone tolerated. But even if we could see the deplorable rubbish of the Grinch’s soul, it would be unrecognizable because it is mangled together. It is a place where order and distinctions have no meaning or significance.
Like his predecessor, Ebenezer Scrooge, the Grinch demonstrates that the collective effervescence of Christmas requires a foil in order to be meaningful. When one of our own questions Christmas, we label them a Grinch and a Scrooge. Grinches and Scrooges cannot be tolerated and this act of intolerance reinforces our sense of “Christmas spirit.” Whoville and Mount Crumpit define each other.
In recent years the symbolic order surrounding Christmas has been challenged by an increasingly multicultural society. Additionally, outspoken atheists have begun to challenge the legality of nativity scenes and other public Christmas displays. For some, this has made the need to banish the opponents of Christmas stronger than ever. Accusations of a “War on Christmas,” made most frequently by pundits at Fox News, serve the same function as “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” This rhetoric shores up a threatened symbolic order by reinscribing the boundaries between Christmas and its opponents. As Timothy Stanley recently commented for CNN, “No Christmas is complete without a war on Christmas.” You may be a mean one, Mr. Grinch, but without you, the meaning of Christmas might be lost.