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Fr Martin Pender

I am sure that many of us have seen the film “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. It is a powerful film in many ways. It is a story about a jealous creature who decides that he would pose as Santa Claus, and then he sets about stealing all the gifts that had been set aside for children. However, one little girl spies the theft and the children, undaunted by their loss, celebrate Christmas anyway. There is a powerful message here!

Today we find all sorts of Grinches who try to steal Christmas. Just think of the moves to call it “Xmas” or of Christmas stamps without the Madonna and Child. Less overtly, we are treated to phrases like “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings”, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”, or “Jack Frost nipping at your nose”. (By the way, this makes no sense when you live in South Africa and it is about 30 degrees at Christmas time!)

What a robbery. After all, the only reason we are celebrating Christmas in the first place is a baby whose birth changed the course of history. Like the young girl and all her friends in the story, the little ones—the little people—(I don’t mean leprechauns!) somehow celebrate Christmas anyway.

The Roman emperor insisted on having his birthday celebrated, so the little people decided that they would celebrate the birth of Jesus. The cultural powers worshipped the sun god at the end of the year, so Christians decided to exalt the Son of God.

The high and mighty eventually caught on. By the year 500, the Church made Christmas a special feast. Three decades later, the Roman Empire followed suit. Commemorating the birth of Jesus spread throughout Europe, and by AD 600, Augustine of Canterbury baptised ten thousand converts on that holy day. For almost a millennium, Christmas was the special feast of the poor, the common people, the little ones.

By the sixteenth century, however, Christmas was disappearing from many places. The Puritans condemned and abolished Christmas as something pagan and idolatrous. They even tried to make observing it a sin. In 1642 services were banned. No decorations were allowed. Two years later Christmas was declared a time of fast and penance. In 1647 the British Parliament totally banned Christmas. Markets were ordered to stay open. Longer work hours were enforced. The little people did not like this at all. There were riots.

The monarchy, thinking that plum pudding, mince pie, goose, and “good will” could make up for the theft, allowed for a secular celebration of Christmas, not wanting to seem a Scrooge. But even in the 1700s, when Charles Wesley was penning “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” a more refined mind pronounced: “there is no place for Christmas in the modern world.”

Although Christmas was outlawed in New England until 1850, and people were forced to work that day while their children were ordered to school, subversive practices from olden times persisted. Folklore defied the Grinches: there were reports of cattle and deer on their knees, birds singing in the snow, bees humming in harmony, and animals talking. Trees, decked with fruit, promised a new Eden. Breaded wafers and glowing candles hung from branches.

As it was then, so it will be. There is a mystery in Christmas far brighter than presents, more persistent than the great wars or personal sorrows that seem to steal it away. Christmas is about the child who became the bread of life, the baby who beamed as the light of the world.

The Grinch, by the way, had a change of heart. Apparently what did the trick was seeing the joy of children.


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