I grew up on the Grinch. Horton and Yertle and the Cat in the Hat were in there somewhere, too, but mostly I remember the Grinch, and Cindy Lou Who, and Max, the ridiculous dog and his lashed-on reindeer antlers.
My father, a great reader himself, never read to us except from Dr. Seuss, and he—and we—especially loved “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” I mentioned this to a school teacher once, when I was about third grade, and she scoffed and sneered—sneered, I tell you, because Dr. Seuss was not proper children’s’ literature, not instructive, or even well-written. Dr. Seuss was common, she meant to imply, and I could feel, and hear, her condescension.
Like I cared.
Which is odd, because as a child I cared about that sort of thing very much. But I loved the Grinch more.
The lesson of the story, of course, is that Christmas comes without “tinsel and trappings,” without trees, without roast beast. It comes whether we welcome it or dread it, comes with our full embrace or without.
And it is not about the presents—most of all it is not about these.
But I remember, once I could read, looking at the page in the book with all the toys under the tree, just before the Grinch bundles them up, and there sat a trike with a tag on it labeled Jo Jo, the name my family called me. I had never seen it in print before, which thrilled me beyond belief.
Deep down, I can admit now, I was profoundly sad about those disappearing presents.
I stayed sad about those presents, and the specter of no presents at Christmas until I was shamefully old. In my callow youth I might give lip service to good fortune, prayers answered, a loved one come home as Christmas present enough, but I didn’t really mean it.
I wanted stuff.
Or more accurately, I wanted all those things, but I wanted presents, too.
I didn’t tarry in this wallow of self-absorption long, which is a mercy, because, really, is there anything more shallow and insufferable than the person I just described? And is that person the most boorish at Christmas?
As I go about dismantling my childhood home I am confronted with “stuff” on a massive scale. As I write this, I can see boxes of old photos, old papers and letters, the stuff and memories of others, long dead, and my new burden.
Last week I spent quiet time with friends, around kitchen tables, around fires, bundled up on porches with candles for light, a concert here, a play there. At some point in every gathering, someone whispered that this was their favorite part of the holidays, not the big dress-up parties, with the ostentation and performance aspect of it. But this, us, bathed in affection and goodwill for each other.
Tomorrow, at the request of a niece, I will bake the cookies that Nana made each Christmas, but I would make them anyway. They have been part of every Christmas of my life. I will take them to my sister’s, where we will spend Christmas Eve together as a family, eating and laughing and doing the mathematics of the heart, tallying our losses and worries, and totting up blessings, our dreams for the future, newly minted adults with diplomas, new relationships, retirement, new travel or nesting.
And then to midnight service, walking in the dark the short distance to church, seeking the ancient and divine with others gathered for the same purpose.
Before the sun dawns on Christmas Day I will have re-read the nativity story in Luke, will have re-read “A Christmas Carol” and Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” I will have listened to a scratchy recording of Dylan Thomas reciting “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”
But I will think about the lessons the Grinch learned, too, will think of how his heart grew because he saw for the first time, and clearly, the heart of others.
The Grinch has a place along side my Christmas traditions, sits on the shelf with my starched white choir robe and big red bow that I wore for the Christmas performance at Buena Vista Baptist Church. It sits with my mother’s cookies, alongside “Away in a Manger,” and “too excited to sleep.” It takes up just the right amount of space, waiting for my father to open the cover and begin to read.