Wednesday, December 09, 2009

"Christmas is a sad season for the poor"

In their comprehension of poverty and its solutions, most Americans moved little beyond Dickens. They believed their Christmas generosity praiseworthy. Charles Dudley Warner thought the present American Christmas to be "fuller of real charity and brotherly love, and nearer the Divine intention" than earlier Christmases. The New York Tribune found the holiday "hearty and generous-minded, [full of] good-cheer and open-handed hospitality." "Nowhere in Christendom," it contended, "are the poor remembered at Christmas-tide so generously as they are in American cities, especially in our own."

In this show of self-congratulation, Americans persisted in seeing poor relief as a matter of individual action to be undertaken on much the same terms as gift-giving within the circle of family. That is, Christmas was the time to give. The best and largest gifts went to those closest to the circle's center. The lesser gifts, in descending order of value, went out to relatives and acquaintances of decreasing importance. The worthy poor, as the outermost members of the larger community family, received gifts too, though the least valuable of all the gifts given.
Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America, p. 139, 140

Perhaps I should explain who the "worthy poor" were:

A sense that there were those who were worthy of relief and those who were not qualified the attention devoted to poverty relief [after the Civil War], though. Children almost always deserved aid, as did honest women. Seldom did the same plea go out for men. A seasonal article on the New York Tribune implored the public to provide for poor children. In 1877, it reminded readers that most Americans were "Christian people," and advised them to try their best to keep children from being deprived at this time "when they think that all good gifts and gladness come straight from Him whose birthday it is." At the same time, the paper advised the sympathetic to ignore plain street beggars.
As Restad notes:

The sentimentalization of "worthy paupers" at Christmas time, whether in fact or in fiction, did not bring into question the essential structure of the market economy that had, if only indirectly, produced their poverty. Instead, it imbued destitute women and vagabond children with admirable qualities that existed apart from materialism, perhaps even as substitues for tangible wealth. It also aroused the sympathies of readers by giving a face to poverty, and placed the means of solving the problems of hunger and homelessness in the hands of individuals.(p. 135)
I've learned to look to history for lessons in how we got here, and to understand culture as a genetic inheritance (metaphorically speaking) almost as pre-determined as eye color or gender. we think what we think and act the way we act in part because of who our ancestors were, and what they passed on as important and valuable. The "worthy poor" is an interesting category, especially at this season of the year, when even the most unbelieving among us is encouraged to reflect on the lessons of the man who grew up from the Christchild. Well, perhaps lessons is not the right word. As Bob Cratchit puts it to his wife, speaking of his youngest son:

"Somehow he gets thoughtful sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see."
We don't, after all, want to be reminded that Jesus never put a faith test before someone before Jesus would speak to them, and the one time it is recorded that he did, the Syro-Phoenician woman rebukes him quite accurately. We still prefer our Jesus be more like us, and to start him up from childhood that way, every new year.

I'm well aware of the John Cheever story from which I took the title for this blog. First it crossed my mind as just a good post title; then I reflected on how much it represents that American ideal that individual actions can alleviate poverty for the "worthy poor." I can't think of a story that illustrates that better than Cheever's. It's not really a question of generosity, even, because that question gets down to the issue of ownership in the first place. Restad notes in her history of Christmas in America that it was the affluence and abundance produced after the Civil War that led people to think of widening the circle of their gift-giving, to begin to include at all the "worthy poor." Hard to condemn such compassion, and any critique of it looks just like that: condemnation. But there were other voices, even in the 19th century, even in America:

People nowadays interchange gifts and favors out of friendship, but buying and selling is considered absolutely inconsistent with the mutual benevolence which should prevail between citizens and the sense of community of interest which supports our social system. According to our ideas, buying and selling is essentially anti-social in all its tendencies. It is an education in self-seeking at the expense of others, and no society whose citizens are trained in such a school can possibly rise above a very low grade of civilization
-- Edward Bellamy

The ultimate aim of production is not production of goods but the production of free human beings associated with one another on terms of equality.
-- John Dewey

I confess that I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other's heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human beings
-- John Stuart Mill

The gross national product includes air pollution and advertising for cigarettes, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors, and jails for the people who break them ... It does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of thier education, or the joy of their play.
-- Robert F. Kennedy

We must recognize that we can't solve our problems now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power....[What is required is] a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society.
-- Martin Luther King, Jr
There was a story about a Christmas yard display in Detroit that was too political for some of the neighbors. And generally that's our line on Christmas: we want to reserve it "for the children," and of course, that's still how we think of the "worthy poor," as children. Hard to think of men as children, so they get excluded from the "worthy poor" very easily. We also don't like quotes like those above associated with our Christmas revels. Fair enough. But perhaps even at Christmas we could look again at the ideas of scarcity and abundance, and consider again whether charity really means merely scraping the crumbs off our tables, or if it means something more.

Christmas is a sad season for the poor; but that doesn't mean it has to be; or that our charity has to be based on sorrow, either.

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