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What Scrooge and the Grinch Learned and Santa Forgot


Old Saint Nick

Enter artist Thomas Nast.  After attacking corrupt politicians with his biting cartoons, and practically inventing Uncle Sam, the Republican elephant, and the Democratic donkey -- Nast drew his famous Santa Claus for Harper's Weekly in the mid- 1860s. Originally a benevolent 4th century Turkish cleric, Saint Nicholas was transformed into a chubby pipe-smoking, red-suit wearing, gift-toting American icon, and it didn't take advertisers long to catch on.  Victorian era ads, though larger and more visual, still suggested conservative gift choices for Christmas.  How about a nice pen set, or some chocolates?  By the turn of the century Santa could be seen hawking Victrolas, Kodaks, bicycles and sleds.  By the 1930s a highly commercialized Saint Nick, adapted from Nast's caricature, was swilling Coca-Cola and puffing on Lucky Strike cigarettes.  In America, Santa even gave away lung cancer.

From there, it was a race to the bottom. Giant department stores, color magazines and children's books, popular music, the rise of lucrative corporations, radio and then TV shows, movies with Christmas themes – they all got in on the grift. Santa was ubiquitous. He kept a secret file on every kid on Earth and employed an army of elves. There was no stopping him.

Improved transportation, mass production, cheap foreign labor, mail order catalogs, the isolation of war and the poverty of Depression -- pick your own culprit. The American addiction to stuff and more stuff became our national pastime. By the Baby Boom era of the 1950s, it was all over. Madison Avenue Santa had won. Everything and everyone was for sale. Christmas and now Hanukkah merchandise accounts for as much as 60 to 80 percent of some companies' annual revenue.

The anti-Santas

Since Santa Claus is an artistic invention, it makes sense that he stands opposed to two other Christmas creations -- Scrooge and the Grinch. Charles Dickens and Dr. Seuss knew exactly where to strike at the Anglo-American psyche. These hard-hearted figures are cartoon reminders of our Puritan past. They represent us at our worst -- greedy and self centered. Both Scrooge and the Grinch eventually discover the Christmas Spirit. Both become obsessive givers, overtopped only by the arrival of Oprah Winfrey. Both are characters in books that have sold millions of copies, not to mention movie rights and soundtrack albums.

But on closer analysis, what Scrooge and the Grinch really discover is their humanity. They find that they are accepted and loved by their neighbors despite their miserly nature. They are not required to change, but they change all the same. And when they too become consumers – all’s right with the world.

Maybe we’ve missed the point that Dickens and Dr. Seuss intended. Maybe it the answer is not to bring toys to all the boys and girls of Whoville or to bring Tiny Tim the fattest goose in town. Maybe we are not supposed to embrace our innter-Santa, but cast him out. What if the message is not about filling stockings with care, but instead about the feast itself? What if the best gifts are those given to people we’ve never met, like an unknown baby lying in a stable in a bed of straw?

What the Grinch and Scrooge discover is the real meaning of charity, and not in the modern sense of the rich giving to the poor. Charity has more to do with equality than sympathy. It is an Old French language word that derives from Latin. Charity was not about giving stuff, or even money, but about having “a kindly and lenient attitude toward all people.” It’s pretty much the opposite of what we see in American politics these days. We give to those in need, in the ancient sense of the word, because at some point we are all needy. We give because we are human. Charity in its purest form, historically speaking, is not something given from advantaged to disadvantaged people or from me to you. Charity is us giving to us – without judgment or conditions – because we are all in this together.

Perhaps John Harvey was right. Could it all be so simple? We could all just head to our local bookstore – miraculously there are still a few left – and rediscover reading. Books make the perfect Yuletide gift, according to Mr. Harvey, so it must be true. It says so right there in his full-page newspaper ad.


Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site His 10th history book, America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812, is now available at select local shops and online as a “collectible” item in the author’s bookstore.

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