Christmas Is A Time That Can’t Be Stolen, The Charlotte News, Christmas 1974.
by TOM BRADBURY (1943 — 2010)
It is a first requirement of good literature that it be true, and honest. Not in the sense that it contains only a factual recounting of actual events, but that it portray honestly the thing at its core — be that emotions, or events, people, or principles. Even fables, for example, can be entirely fanciful and concocted, and yet convey a truth.
That’s why I think Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas qualifies as good and honest literature, because it tells a truth about Christmas. Namely, it tells the truth that Christmas can’t be stolen, even by a Grinch of vast power and vile cunning.
For most of us, that amounts to poetic truth. It doesn’t reassure us about burglars who might clean out the stocking on Christmas Eve, but warns us about a commoner danger that we might make the Grinch’s mistake of thinking Christmas is in the trappings. It’s the same thing we here from pulpits and tell to children. The importance is not in the message, which is old, but in the particular telling, which is new and effective.
Or so I thought until I read the story of American POWs who played the people of who-ville to the North Vietnamese “Grinch”. There was an attempt to steal their “Christmas”, even though it consisted only of carols written on toilet paper, and presents made of camp scraps. But that theft, like the Grinch’s, failed, because Christmas is not really a thing of packages and presents, but of spirit. Dr. Suess’ fable, as good fables sometimes do, turned out to possess a measure of literal truth.
The story of POWs who found strength from the Grinch fable does more than confirm the central truth of the tale. It suggests another dimension. The real point is not the observance of Christmas, but the original gift the observance celebrates. It is a gift of hope, a hope that gives men strength to endure, and even celebrate.
But that’s merely an intellectual explanation of a very physical and emotional reality. As such it’s inadequate, but about as close as those of use who haven’t had to live on hope alone can get to the matter. I might as well try to describe what it feels like to freeze, or starve or die.
A better look at it, however, can be had through the words of a man who did learn to endure on hope and faith alone. Listen to what German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from a Nazi prison to his parents at Christmas, 1943. At that time, some 16 months before his execution for complicity in anti-Hitler plots, he had been in a Berlin Prison for some eight months:
“… I long to be released and to see you all again. But for years you have given us such perfectly lovely Christmases that our grateful recollection of them is strong enough to put a darker one into the background.
“It is not till such times as these that we realize what it means to possess the past and a spiritual inheritance independent of changes of time and circumstance. The consciousness of being borne up by a spiritual tradition that goes back for centuries gives one a feeling of confidence and security in the face of all passing strains and stresses.
“I believe that anyone who is a aware of such reserves of strength need not be ashamed of more tender feelings evoked by the memory of a rich and noble past, for in my opinion they belong to the better and nobler part of mankind. They will not overwhelm those who held fast to values that no one can take from them.”
Bonhoeffer, above all, was a proudly self-disciplined German. That’s why he worried in a way most of us probably wouldn’t, about wallowing in sentimental memories. But what I find important is that even this sternly disciplined man found strength and sustenance from Christmas. He found it in the whole of Christmas, which includes the gift of the first Christmas and the centuries of faith and tradition that grew from it.
What Bonhoeffer grasps is not just Christmas as one day of joy, but the faith that grows from the day and its gift and makes possible a lifetime of hope. That’s what the Grinch, or the Nazis, or anyone else, can’t steal.
Dr. Suess, in his inimitable and fanciful way, told a true story. Not just about the un-stealable-ness of Christmas, but about the warmth of it — the hands held, the carols sung, the thanks given, the beast carved at the family table; the family and societal tradition that intertwines with faith to give men sustenance and hope even in the darkest circumstances.