It’s not Yiddish, but is sounds like it could be: grinch. Used as a verb, Ich hob gegrinchen (I grinched). But it’s not Yiddish. It’s an English word that was first coined in the 1950s by Dr. Seuss, the pen name of American cartoonist Theodor Geisel, in a children’s book called How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The name of this made-up character, who is mean spirited and with a heart “two sizes too small,” has come to connote someone who hates seeing others happy and who tries to kill communal joy.
It’s an unseasonal word to focus on this time of year, when we’re poised between the arctic vortex of winter and the budding of spring. But in the commercial lull between Christmas and Easter, it’s worth a calm discussion.
I was mesmerized by the spate of Hallmark’s made-for-TV movies that first aired during what is now called – as a multicultural gesture – the “holiday season.” They were a bit soppy and more than a bit contrived, and the plots were all variations on a single theme:
Someone is nuts about Christmas – yearning to dance in The Nutcracker, bake abundant holiday goodies, or decorate extravagantly. Someone else wants to ignore Christmas entirely because a parent, friend or loved one died, divorced, betrayed or abandoned that person on, or just before, the holiday. Life throws those two opposing spirits together and the Christmas-lover takes it upon him or her self to help the deprived one reconnect with the holiday spirit.
As the plots of these movies have it, repairing the damaged connection to the holiday also repairs the psychological damage to the self and makes the looming romance possible. So, inevitably, the questions comes up: “Why don’t you like to celebrate Christmas.” Why, in other words, are you such a grinch? And the sad story pours out.
Wouldn’t it throw their interlocutor for a loop, I thought, if someone said: “Because I’m Jewish. But I really get into Purim, which is just around the corner.” Or: “Because I’m Muslim. And this year, Ramadan is around now and I’m feeling pretty peckish.” Or: “Because I’m Hindu. But you should have seen the way I embraced Divali last month.” Where might the plot go from there?
Notwithstanding the diversity of culture, religion and ethnicity that is at the heart of the contemporary Canadian ethos, and not withstanding the diverse backgrounds and backstories of the students who fill my classroom, and the neighbours who populate our cities and towns, in commercial enterprises like the Hallmark holiday movies, diversity remains only skin deep – if that.
In this in-between season, let’s also celebrate the ways in which we are not alike. The half-price candy canes are off the shelves and there’s no run on chocolate eggs yet. Without holiday hype, let’s celebrate not only what connects us, but also what makes us distinct from one another.
The many interfaith groups that have formed in Canadian cities and towns create meaningful ties among different communities based on mutual respect. When we explain ourselves to others – explain what we value, what we stand for, what we nurture – our differences become less frightening. And in explaining ourselves to others, we come to know ourselves better. In today’s atmosphere of political polarization, this may well be the most important work we can do.
So in true Jewish fashion – and in appreciation of Theodor Geisel who published anti-Hitler and anti-xenophobia political cartoons when it was unpopular to do so – I say: let’s embrace our inner grinch and give it a spin. When co-workers leave early or students ask for extensions for a holiday that’s not on our radar, ask them about it. When folks ask why we’re not in the mainstream, explain. Support interfaith initiatives. Then say, ich gegrinchen es – I grinched it.