You’re a Rotter, Mr. Grinch

It’s been over sixty years since Dr. Seuss gave us the beloved story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The book has been adapted three times for film and television: once as an animated TV-short, once as a live-action feature starring Jim Carrey as the Grinch, and most recently, as a full-length animated film with Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice of the arch Christmas-hater. The Grinch is right up there with Ebenezer Scrooge in terms of Christmas villains, so much so that his name is now a byword. To call someone a grinch is to deem them grouchy, selfish, and mean-spirited.

Perhaps we may best describe the Grinch by this song, written by Dr. Seuss himself, for the 1966 TV-short.

A Bad Egg
“Mean one,” “heel,” “monster,” “foul one,” “rotter”—yikes! You know you’re not well-liked if someone would take a sea-sick crocodile over you. But why is the Grinch this way? Though the 2000 live-action film casts the Grinch as the victim of bullying because he is different, it doesn’t seem like this is what Dr. Seuss actually had in mind.

In the original book, we are only told that the Grinch hated Christmas, but “No one quite knows the reason.”¹ And as for the Grinch being made fun of because of his looks . . . well, really, everyone looks a little bit funny in Dr. Seuss stories.

It’s hard for us to imagine a person being like the Grinch without some kind of motive. Someone or something must have made him the way he is. Since Dr. Seuss left the door open with his ambiguous, “No one quite knows the reason,”² we are, of course, free to imagine what we like. Perhaps the Grinch was bullied or treated badly or had a troubled past. However, it is interesting that Dr. Seuss doesn’t focus on the Grinch’s personal history. The Grinch is just a bad egg.

Dr. Seuss concludes that the most likely reason for the Grinch’s grinchyness is that “his heart was two sizes too small.”³ But whatever the reason, the Grinch is a person now consumed with hatred, not just for Christmas, but also for those incredibly irritating people who celebrate it—the Whos. Thus, on the night of Christmas Eve, he embarks on a mission to rid Whoville of all its presents, food, and merriment.

Of course, in the end he learns that Christmas means a lot more than presents and food. What exactly it means, Dr. Seuss never says, and though we think the Bible has the answer to this question, I’m not going to get into that in this article. The question I want to ask right now is not What is the true meaning of Christmas? but rather, In what ways do I resemble the Grinch in my own life? In what ways am I a rotter?

If you were to do a Google search for the word “rotter,” you will find the following definition: “a cruel, stingy, or unkind person.”4 Let’s take these adjectives one at a time.

The Grinch does not get any enjoyment out of Christmas, and he’s determined that no one else should, either. It may seem like an overly serious point to make, but spoiling another person’s enjoyment of a good thing is a serious offense—and we all probably do this more than we think.

Perhaps an example will help: Prior to becoming a member of the legendary comedy group Monty Python, John Cleese released a short film entitled How to Irritate People. It includes an amusing sketch in which two young people are watching a television show that their parents simply aren’t interested in. Instead of leaving them alone, the father persists in making offhand remarks about how there are much more interesting things on TV, doing unnecessarily noisy things, guilt-tripping the children and pestering them until, in exasperation, they finally let him watch his own show.

It’s hilarious to watch, but also embarrassingly true to life. We’ve all sat and mocked something that others are trying to enjoy. In his book, The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis gives a similar example, in which families often ridicule or disdain a pursuit that one family member enjoys if it is one that the whole family does not or cannot enjoy.5 It seems like no big deal to us, but it is ultimately a self-centered approach. It is, quite simply, unkind, and furthermore, unloving. It is the reverse of the Biblical mandate in Philippians 2:3-4: we consider ourselves—our interests, our desires, our wants—over and above others.

We may think of stinginess primarily in Scrooge-like terms—that is, as stinginess with money—but there are many other ways to be stingy. The Grinch’s stinginess manifests itself in his utter unwillingness to share in the joy and festivities of the Christmas season. He certainly gives nothing nor adds anything to the enjoyment of others.

One thing that many are stingy with is their time. With the invention of the clock, people started counting time, but what we do now is far worse—we hoard it. We see time as a possession that we own, to be used for our pleasure and our leisure. Often in my own life, any interruption in my schedule is a cause for serious irritation. Rather than seeing time as a gift from God, I sometimes see it as a means to my own ends.

Stinginess is entirely self-absorbed. The stingy person sees themselves as the center of the universe and every person as either useful or not in the campaign for self-satisfaction. Other people are stingy primarily out of fear, afraid to give too much away. However, this too is self-centered, because it does not look to the God who has proven himself trustworthy time and again. Stinginess, ultimately, turns us away from God and others and toward utter self-absorption.

The Grinch gets a wicked satisfaction out of causing pain and distress to other people. He cruelly hopes to ruin Christmas for the Whos. Hopefully, “cruel” is not an adjective that readily comes to mind when people think about us, but there is one form of cruelty that slips under the radar—sarcasm.

Our word “sarcasm” goes back to the Greek word “sarkazein,” which means “to tear flesh like a dog.”6 Sarcasm is widely practiced, though of course, many people don’t use sarcasm with the intent of inflicting pain. Most of us use it because we think it is funny; but our words have tremendous power, and the testimony of many is that sarcastic humor cuts them deeply. And it’s no good saying, “they just need to get over it.” We are called to build one another up with our words, not tear each other down (Ephesians 4:29). Not every use of sarcasm is wrong, but perhaps we should take a hard look at how and why we use it.

As it turns out, this little story is more convicting than I thought. Every one of these negative qualities—unkindness, stinginess, and cruelty—is an area in which I have participated. Am I the Grinch? Fortunately, the story does not end there for the Grinch or for us. The Grinch learns that there is more to Christmas, returning to Whoville to spread joy and to join in community with others. So, too, Christians (who know the magnitude of what happened that night in the stable), know that we aren’t stuck being rotters. We are redeemed. God is remaking us, day by day, into the kind of people who aren’t defined by unkindness, stinginess, and cruelty, but by faith, hope, and love.

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Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.