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How the Grinch saved Christmas

It's a familiar taunt at this time of year for those of us who, quite literally, don't buy into the commercial frenzy of Christmas. ''You're such a Grinch!'' people say, incredulous at the thought that it's possible to sail through the festive season without buying a troll's horde of stuff - strings of winking lights, plastic holly sprigs, polyester Santa hats, aerosol cans of spray snow, pointy elf ears, Christmas napkin rings, fluffy angel wings, tabletop tealight lanterns, fake reindeer antlers (already got a pair? Ah, but this year's trend is antlers for the car, so buy up!), a Santa dummy to hang from the chimney, a mini-herd of sled-towing plastic reindeers to park on the front lawn and a stash of gaudy glass baubles made by lowly paid workers in offshore sweatshops. Christmas stockings? They've been rebadged as ''Santa loot bags''.

Oh bah humbug to all mingy, mirthless Grinches! Resistance is futile, because even a celebrity atheist like Richard Dawkins says he celebrates Christmas. The evolutionary biologist and best-selling author of science classics such as The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion is reported by Britain's tabloids to have told BBC Radio 4 he's ''perfectly happy on Christmas Day to say Merry Christmas to everybody''. He even likes traditional carols, and a good Christmas pudding.

''We are not kill joys, we are not Scrooges. We give each other presents and when my daughter was a bit younger we would have a tree. We don't now,'' he said.

But in response to an email from The New York Times asking (with just a tinge of sarcasm, perhaps) if he was a member of the Atheists Who Kind Of Don't Object to Christmas Club, Dawkins fired up his inner Grinch and let rip.

''Presumably your reason for asking me that is that The God Delusion is an atheistic book, and you still think of Christmas as a religious festival,'' he wrote. ''But of course it has long since ceased to be a religious festival. I participate for family reasons, with a reluctance that owes more to aesthetics than atheistics. I detest Jingle Bells, White Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and the obscene spending bonanza that nowadays seems to occupy not just December, but November and much of October too.

''So divorced has Christmas become from religion that I find no necessity to bother with euphemisms such as happy holiday season. In the same way as many of my friends call themselves Jewish atheists, I acknowledge that I come from Christian cultural roots. I am a post-Christian atheist. So, understanding full well that the phrase retains zero religious significance, I unhesitatingly wish everyone a Merry Christmas.''

But is being a Grinch such a bad thing? Are we muddling memories of Dr Seuss with Charles Dickens when we think of the former's How The Grinch Stole Christmas as somehow synonymous with the misanthropic Ebenezer Scrooge in the latter's A Christmas Carol. Both characters embrace philanthropy, but the Grinch doesn't fall for the sentimental humbug of ''Christmas with all the trimmings''. C'mon, would the author of the environmental tree-saving classic The Lorax - not to mention The Butter Battle (anti-war, anti-isolationist), Horton Hears A Who! (racial equality), Yertle The Turtle (question authority) and Richard M. Nixon, Will You Please Go Now? ( no hidden political message there!) - really be in favour of endorsing rampant consumerism? There's certainly a case for arguing the Grinch has slyly knocked the stuff-ing out of Christmas.