WHEN Dr. Seuss's Christmas-hating Grinch discovers that his heart is ``two sizes too small'' to enjoy the holiday season, he tries to find a way to stop Christmas from coming. He goes from house to house scooping up presents, Christmas stockings, even trees in hopes that he can prevent everyone else from enjoying the day too.
Like Scrooge before him, the Grinch represents only a fictional threat to the season. But increasingly, both killjoy characters appear to serve as role models for assorted real-life Grinches and Scrooges who seem intent on stealing the merry from Merry Christmas.
Tis the season to be jolly?
Not in their eyes it isn't. For these Grinches - whose ranks include journalists, talk-show hosts, psychologists, and economists - Christmas is less a celebration than a month-long crisis.
Consider the life-style reporters and TV hosts who annually serve up a smorgasbord of stories characterizing the holidays as fraught with peril. Got the Christmas blues? they ask, a bit too eagerly. Concerned about your family's annual reunion, which produces so much anxiety?
Not to worry, the journalists say reassuringly. Quoting pop psychologists who regard Christmas angst as perfectly normal, they imply that only children or the perennially naive can be duped by all the ho-ho-hos and tra-la-las.
For further proof that Christmas appears to be turning into a problem in some quarters, read the annual anti-fruitcake columns, which are proliferating even faster than the candied fruits the writers take such pleasure in villifying. Also check the authoritative lists of 10 most dangerous toys and the pre-Christmas warnings about the post-Christmas diets that will be inevitable after all those parties and feasts.
The collective message is clear: Celebrate at your own risk.
More seasonal confusion comes courtesy of a second group of Grinches, the economists who use Christmas sales to project the health of the entire economy for the coming year. Americans have a patriotic duty to stimulate the economy by shopping in December, economists seem to say as they devise yet another retail indicator. One of the latest, the Gift-Wrap Index, predicts economic strength on the basis of wrapping-paper sales alone.
Alas, even the most dedicated shoppers and the most generous gift-givers face additional pressure this year from a third Grinch-like barometer. Joel Waldfogel, a professor of economics at Yale, has calculated that Americans waste $4 billion annually in gifts that recipients don't like. By his measure, receiving a gift that is ``not what I wanted'' contributes to a ``deadweight'' loss. It's not enough simply to give a gift. You must choose The Perfect Gift, or else you've wasted your money.
So much for the quaint notion that it's the thought that counts.
Finally, there exists a fourth category of Grinches who have nothing to do with commerce. These are the seasonal watchdogs who see danger - and potential lawsuits - in every holiday symbol, from mangers displayed on town commons to Christmas carols sung in school pageants, to say nothing of the red-and-green cookies served at classroom parties.
Torn between economists shouting ``Buy! Buy!'' and Christmas purists pleading ``Simplify! Simplify!,'' what's a Christmas celebrant to do? Scrooges and Grinches have become so expert at dampening the festivities. The voices of the merrymakers falter as they sing, ``Have yourself a merry little Christmas.'' Worse, those who fervently want more from Christmas than just a good time find the naysayers pushing a large cloud over the little star of Bethlehem.
Perhaps those naysayers can take a lesson from the storybook Grinch, who undergoes a conversion when he discovers that despite his best efforts to steal holiday joy from the residents of Who-ville, ``he hadn't stopped Christmas from coming. It CAME! Somehow or other, it came just the same.'' With the realization that ``maybe Christmas ... doesn't come from a store'' and that perhaps it ``means a little bit more,'' his small heart grows three sizes in a day, becoming large enough to embrace the celebration.
As a light in the darkness - literally and symbolically - Christmas needs to be reclaimed, and not just for the sake of a brief day. Celebrated to the fullest, Christmas extends its meaning to the rest of the year, blessing everyone, as Tiny Tim observed, not least of all the Scrooges and Grinches.