Last night, after a long day at work, I collapsed on the couch with my husband and six-year old daughter to watch A Christmas Carol. It was our daughter’s first time watching it and she was a bit scared by the ghosts, especially the mute and shadowy figure of Christmas future. Her face was a picture of childish delight at the end when Scrooge dances, giddy with happiness on Christmas morning, the ghosts gone and the day bright and full of possibilities for change. Family members are still willing to forgive and Tiny Tim is still capable of being saved. Yes, it's full of Dickensian sentimentality and heavy-handed moralizing, but the message – that “mankind [is our] business” and that we should feel directly responsible for the suffering of others -- is still timely and one that I want my daughter to associate with Christmas.
A Christmas Carol is credited with helping create our modern Christmas holiday with its feast and family gatherings. Strangely, the most important symbols of Christmas are absent from the story: the Christmas tree (which was just being introduced in the 1840s), Santa Claus, even baby Jesus. Instead, the story gives us ghosts, a giant turkey, and one day of vacation. Maybe we love it because it reassures us that it’s not too late to become good, or because it lets us hope that someone will take pity on our misfortunes and transform our lives with unexpected acts of benevolence. In watching A Christmas Carol we experience the same catharsis of generosity and gratitude that shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition deliver. Yet the feel-good endings of both narratives mask the inadequacy of their response to poverty, low wages, poor housing, and sick children.
Published during the "hungry forties," A Christmas Carol was a response to the sufferings of the new urban poor created by the Industrial Revolution. In particular, Dickens attacks the Poor Laws that forced the indigent into workhouses and separated families. However, Scrooge's charity is a reform of individual conscience, not the radical reforms for which early labor unions fought. It’s much more pleasant to imagine rich old men made suddenly generous toward grateful employees and their helpless children than to be confronted by a group of rough men demanding their rights. But it’s worth asking, how did we get a minimum wage, a forty-hour work week, sick leave, and laws abolishing child labor? Not from ghosts in the night or acts of individual charity.
Last year the faculty at our state university was granted the right to form a union. After years of frozen salaries, furloughs, and a new governor who promises to go after state employee pensions, it shouldn’t be a hard decision. But professors have been conditioned to think of themselves as individually meritorious, autonomous, and above collective action. I hope we realize that this strategy isn’t working, but then we’d have to give up the beguiling myth that rights are given without struggle.