Dorothy Wells: New Lessons from the Grinch

I wasn’t a fan of Christmas when I was a child. Christmas was, for me, a long, two-week winter break during which I felt disconnected from the settled routine of school, learning and friends that brought an escape from the troubles of home. My parents had their own struggles – my mother, with mental illness and my father, with alcoholism. Christmas was not, for me, a time of joy and happiness, and it certainly wasn’t yet about celebrating God in the flesh having been born among us.

Christmas was just lonely and sad.

Maybe that’s why I’ve always been drawn to Dr. Suess’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. As a child, I could identify with a Grinch who didn’t experience happiness at Christmas. The good news is the Grinch wasn’t stuck in his unhappy place; I needed to know that I wouldn’t be forever stuck in my own unhappy place, either.

As the years passed, I began to think a bit more critically about this beloved children’s tale – and whether its message was quite as simple as we all might like it to be. 

The story introduces us to a Grinch who lived in seeming isolation above the Whos in Whoville, and with little interaction with them, save his growing annoyance with them every year at Christmas (apparently, only at Christmas), with their presents, and feasting, and oh-so-joyful singing and music-making. His annoyance grew so great, indeed, that it became an obsession: He needed to keep the Whos’ happy Christmas from coming, at all costs. And so the “mean one, Mr. Grinch” came down to Whoville and took all of the presents, the food, the decorations, the trappings, thinking that he had stopped Christmas from coming. But to the stunned Grinch’s surprise, the Whos still gathered together, holding hands and singing carols – just as if nothing had happened.

My own puzzler starts puzzling: Just why did the Whos’ happy celebration bother the Grinch so much? Maybe the Grinch was lonely, or felt excluded and cut off from celebrating the day with his Whoville neighbors. Maybe there was some sadness or loss that the Grinch associated with Christmas. 

It didn’t appear that those Whos, for all of their joyful celebrating, had ever tried to include their Grinchy neighbor – who didn’t look at all like them, or act like them – by inviting him to join their celebration, or taking him a gift, a plate of their Roast Beast feast, or even a can of Who-Hash. 

It seems that the Whos paid no attention to the Grinch at all – that is, until he came down to pay them an unexpected – and, no doubt unwanted – visit.

Maybe the Whos didn’t really understand Christmas, either, not nearly so much as they (or we) thought. Maybe its message had eluded them, just as it had eluded the Grinch.

Perhaps if the Whos had initiated contact with their isolated neighbor, to invite him to share in their joyful celebration, they might truly have shown that they understood the message of Christmas. It’s the very act of radical hospitality that the Whos showed after the Grinch came down to Whoville, after he returned their presents, food and decorations – inviting him to join their celebration, and even to carve the Roast Beast – that helped release him from the unhappy place where he was stuck and gave him a new lease on life.

But the Grinch shouldn’t have had to invite himself to the community by attempting to ruin their celebration – and taking all that the Whos had – in order to get their attention.

All grown up now, and part of the organized Church, I find myself thinking about those Whos – and the larger lesson for faith communities, particularly in a post-COVID world. Here’s what I think: However festively we celebrate our traditions, however joyfully we sing our hymns, however piously we display our faith, if we fail to acknowledge the presence of the neighbor who sits just beyond our doors – the neighbor whom we see but whose story isn’t known to us, the neighbor who may not look like us, the neighbor who may not know our traditions, the neighbor who may be completely alone and struggling – we pay lip service to what we claim that we believe. 

After the past two years of sickness, grief, loss, and, of course, the broken habit of church attendance, faith communities are struggling to find their identity and footing. Some churches have closed permanently during this season of our lives because there simply aren’t enough churchgoers to continue to support them. Some churchgoers have indefinitely postponed a return to worship and church activities, while other churchgoers have made no plans to return. And when the habit of worship was broken, some moved on to other activities.

About now, our faith communities should be discerning new ways to connect with suffering neighbors to extend some invitations to holy and radical hospitality. About now, our faith communities should be discerning how we serve in a vastly different environment – and how we visibly demonstrate our relevance as bearers of the love of God and the light of Christ in a broken, fractured world. If ever there were a time that the world needed to see the Church as a unifier, as a place of welcome and caring for all of God’s people, as a place committed to loving neighbor, and as a place of holy hospitality, this is the time. Our buildings are replete with places and spaces to welcome new ministries – to help address needs around food insecurity, childcare, literacy, addiction recovery, mental health, physical exercise, legal aid, immigration support, employment networking, community music lessons – that bring healing of body, mind and spirit to neighbors who desperately need to know that we’re there.

It’s that kind of invitation to radical hospitality that we in our faith communities should prayerfully discern – right about now – so that our neighbors aren’t left to struggle alone.


The Rev. Dr. Dorothy Sanders Wells is an Episcopal priest who often writes about justice and equity issues for God's people.

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