Dec 19 2012 12:00pm

All the Whos Down in Whoville are Aliens

If you’re going to watch a heart-string tugging Christmas special with children on or around the holidays, why you’re not watching the 1966 animated adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is beyond me. Hell, I used to babysit for twins who liked watching it in the middle of August, and why not? The Grinch both steals and saves Christmas (spoiler alert!), so it’s best to feel comfortable about that well before December hits. The point is, the original 1957 picture book and the ‘66 cartoon version are genius and showcase Theodore Geisel at possibly the tippy-top of his powers. Not only does The Grinch story make Christmas vaguely secular with a snap of its fingers, it does so without offending anyone and with silly amounts of originality.

But just what are the Whos down in Whoville? Are they human? What is the Grinch? What’s the connection between these Whos and the Whos living on the speck-of-dust planet in Horton Hears a Who!? Are those Whos who Horton heard the same species of Whos of which Cyndi Lou Who (who was not more than two) is a member?

Taken in order of publication, Horton Hears a Who!—the immortal story of the awesome elephant Horton rescuing an entire miniature world situated on a speck of dust—was released in 1954, three full years before How the Grinch Stole Christmas. If we take Horton as the establishing text defining the Who society, then it stands to reason the creatures we see in Grinch are all located on that same microscopic world. This means then, that Horton is totally responsible for saving Christmas, too, at least the Christmas located on the Who Planet.

But, the technology the Whos possess in Horton Hears a Who! is noticeably more advanced than what the Whos in Whoville seem to have in How the Grinch Stole Christmas! It’s possible to suggest a few explanations for this, the simplest of which is that How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is a prequel to Horton Hears a Who!, the former taking place in the distant past of a less-populated and pre-industrial Who society. This seems likely enough, but it is sort of weird that an entire race of people called “Whos” would name their main city “Whoville.” I mean, people probably didn't start calling things “Personville” until Dashiell Hammett showed up. We can give the Whos a pass on this oddity if only because we know what a bonkers culture they are.

Alternately, if we assume the Whos have a little more sanity than demonstrated in How The Grinch Stole Christmas, then perhaps that book is actually a story which exists inside Who culture. It might be one of their oldest fables, perhaps even approaching religious significance. The Whos we see in Horton Hears a Who! are scientific and complex, whereas as the Whos in How the Grinch Stole Christmas are sort of wishy-washy earthy-crunchy. These folks then, might simply be the fictional representation of ideal Whos, while the Whos in Horton are the, um, “real” Whos. To be fair, neither explanation is totally clean and it still doesn’t explain why they speak English or inherited Christmas from what is essentially an outside world, but the connection starts to make a little more sense.

What’s more fun is to theorize that the Whos (either versions) are aliens. A speck of dust flying around our world is a good way to describe Earth whipping around the sun. A giant space elephant might be totally responsible for our salvation too, and perhaps even our creation. (This is basically the philosophical core of Prometheus, right? Only in that one the space elephant turns on us?)

A little more evidence that the Whos are aliens can be found in their visible biology. Little Cyndi Lou Who appears to only have one leg, which she sort of floats on, like a kind of land mermaid. Of course, we also see other Whos with two legs, leading some among us to theorize that maybe Whos only grow their second leg once they’re two years old. Further, if we assume the Grinch is a Who (who simply transformed into the Grinch because he was an asshole) then we discover these creatures have the ability to change the size of their hearts and, miraculously, their eye colors. This notion is contradicted in the blasphemously apocryphal Jim Carrey live action version of the story in which they reveal the Grinch has always been green and ugly. This doesn’t work for me. Instead I like to think of The Grinch as a more Gollum/Sméagol character. His dark tendencies transformed him not just emotionally, but physically, too.

So is the Grinch a Who or not? In the story, when he’s saving the sleigh, there’s a line about him being as strong as “10 Grinches, plus 2” implying a “Grinch” is its own species. But, if we apply the idea that How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is metafiction inside of Horton Hears a Who!, then this can easily be dismissed as clever wordplay.

What’s that you say? It’s all just clever wordplay? If you think that’s true, then wait until next time, when I explain why One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish is Dr. Seuss’s Ulysses. Until then, we can all head into the holiday season looking for tiny specks of dust containing goofy aliens who hold the spirit of Christmas in their hearts forever.

Some aspects of this article appeared in a slightly different form on in 2011

Ryan Britt is a staff writer for

1. wingracer
But are they related to Doctor Who?
Bob Musser
2. dogshouse
Its about time someone ripped the lid off this cesspool of lies and doubletalk.
Pamela Adams
4. PamAdams
Perhaps all Whos turn into Grinches when they become evil asshole jerks.

My question is where did Max come in? Did dogs parallelly (Hey, it's kind of a word!) evolve on Whoville? Alternatively, perhaps they were able to get earth dogs and breed them to be very tiny, so they could fit on their dust-speck.

Fah who for-aze to all and to all a good night!
5. RPahle
YES! Will Vinton's Claymation Christmas! The only Christmas special I know of that has topless, ice-skating, Claymation walruses.
David Lomax
6. dlomax
Whoville is a colony town established when the Whos came to that speck(probably the Grinch homespeck). What happened after they arrived to reduce this space-faring civilization to their rustic valley-dwelling existence is dubious. Does it involve the destruction of the Grinches, leaving only one embittered soul behind? Or do the Grinches still exist, most of them living solitary lives far from the tiny plot of land they ceded to the invaders from another speck? Hard to tell. But what is almost certain is that the Whoville settlement first got its name as a kind of ironic and derogatory appellation by the (then) dominant Grinches. Eventually the Whos just gave up and went along with it.

What seems sad is that the Whos may not again achieve the technological sophistication to get a generation ship into inter-speck space. They may never develop an ansible to communicate with their brethren who once knew Horton. They may never develop the genetic engineering necessary to have their cats wear hats and perform home-invasions.
7. Eric Stanway
Yes. they are.
8. Earl Rogers
"Not only does The Grinch story make Christmas vaguely secular with a snap of its fingers"

Bah, humbug. The salesmen did that several decades before the book existed.
Alan Brown
9. AlanBrown
Back in the old days, we didn't have the term '-verse' (like in Buffyverse). But if we did, there would have been a Seuss-i-verse, a land where there were Whos and Cats in Hats and Loraxes and wonderful Birthday worlds, and nothing made sense to adults, but everything was just perfect to little kids like me. And in that world of magic and odd trees and creatures, mundane things like planets of origin, species, continuity and consistency between books, and even physics, just didn't matter.
And that world was even more special to me, because I had a great uncle who had gone to grade school with Doctor Seuss, and knew him personally (although he claimed his real name was Teddy Geisel, strangely enough). How cool was that!
Liz J
10. Ellisande
Beyond the lack of legs, the other proof of Cindy Lou's alien-ness are the antennae. you can clearly see them in the photo on the page.

The Whos appear derived from some insectoid species where the larval stage does not yet have multiple feet and retains antennae from an earlier evolutionary form, that drop off after they emerge from cocoons.

Perhaps Grinches are a third stage form, and the transformation is difficult and traumatic, causing many of them to retreat into antisocial behavior. Certainly the Whos seem very accepting of the Grinch's behavior, both in taking Christmas or bringing it back, as if it's nothing terribly unusual.
Liz J
11. Ellisande
double post.
12. Difficat
My daughter wanted to watch both cartoons yesterday and we had exactly this conversation. That they were aliens was clear. They aren't humans, at least. I argued that the antennae appeared in only one cartoon, so they were probably not the same creatures. However, gravity doesn't work quite right for the Grinch, who could lift a town's worth of decoration before it fell off the 10,000 foot mountain. That is a normal-size mountain, but maybe the Grinch and Whos are quite small? It is inconclusive. My daughter decided the name was a coincidence. I wasn't about to argue with an 8-year-old SF fan.

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