we are all just one catastrophic event, one diagnosis or one accident, one flood, or one fire away from being a person who relies on state support. We are only one war away from no longer being a citizen.
By Michelle Martin
Published December 21, 2015
My dear... The children! Christmas Day.
—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (published December 19, 1843)
When Mrs. Cratchit grumbles about stingy Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit gently admonishes his wife to provide a better example of Christian charity to the family.
My dear, the children!
Our children are old enough now that we don't shield their eyes from what's in the newspaper: war, refugees, drowned toddlers on a beach... Somehow the larger geopolitical issues and causes of so much misery are easier to explain to them than run-of-the-mill, intractable hard-heartedness:
I am sick and tired of The Spectator's bleeding heart attitude toward taking in Muslim refugees. It's our country and we should get to decide who is in and who is out. We had the right to turn away Jews in the last war, and we have a right to turn away Muslims in this war.
—Letter, The Hamilton Spectator, December 18, 2015
Why do average Canadians have to pay for these refugees when most of us do not want them here? What about our rights? We need a leader like Donald Trump to representative [sic] the will of real people.
—Letter, The Hamilton Spectator, December 15, 2015
...And how long will the Canadian taxpayer be expected to support these people...?
—Letter, The Hamilton Spectator, December 8, 2015
Since The Spectator seems to love Syrian refugees so much, will you be putting up a host of families with your staff? Then you can pay and not force me to.
—Letter, The Hamilton Spectator, December 7 2015
Are there no prisons? ... And the Union workhouses? Are they still in operation?
—Ebenezer Scrooge, December 19, 1843
Ebenezer Scrooge sees himself as a productive citizen who does enough already; after all, he runs a business and employs a clerk, and takes care of himself.
Likewise, these letter writers stand upon their identities as taxpayers and citizens. The problem with measuring our own worth that way is that it fails to take into account that we are all just one catastrophic event, one diagnosis or one accident, one flood, or one fire away from not being a taxpayer, and instead being a person who relies on state support.
We are only one war away from no longer being a citizen.
Besides, why isn't it clear - at Christmastime, of all times - that all of humankind is our business? Surely, this season is one for relenting a little, as some charity canvassers point out to Scrooge.
Even if we don't believe in the gospel narrative of the incarnation of the son of God as a helpless infant, surely the idea of a young couple expecting a child any day and being turned away from doorstep after doorstep can teach us something of how to live.
"But my dear Sebastian, you can't seriously believe it all."
"I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass."
"Oh yes, I believe that. It's a lovely idea."
"But you can't believe things because they're a lovely idea."
"But I do. That's how I believe."
—Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
On a purely secular level, at face value, the Christmas story is the story of a homeless couple relegated to the stables to welcome their newborn son among the haystacks, surrounded by braying animals and shit - a heartbreaking story until we see later on in the narrative that their worth is seen by some, at least.
Yet a story like this is still not enough to move some people, even in the face of similar real, live experiences recounted in the daily news.
"Father Flynn!" she said in a voice that made him jump. "I want to talk to you about something serious!"
The skin under the old man's right eye flinched.
"As far as I'm concerned," she said and glared at him fiercely, "Christ was just another D.P."
He raised his hands slightly and let them drop to his knees. "Arrrrrr," he murmured as if he were considering this.
"I'm going to let that man go," she said. "I don't have any obligation to him. My obligation is to the people who have done something for their country, not to the ones who've just come over to take advantage of what they can get."
—Flannery O'Connor, The Displaced Person
Where does this come from, this unwillingness to welcome? Is it fear that if we make room for someone else then there may not be room enough for us anymore? To view others as unnecessary is a dangerous path, as Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Present warns:
"Man," said the Ghost, "if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child."
Is Scrooge any less deserving of mercy than we are? Later in his story, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows us his dead Scrooge's bed curtains being sold by the charwoman who took them down before his body was cold, joining other scavengers in not wasting a minute to mourn him; showing us, perhaps, a little of our own ugliness.
I confess to a little glee, when reading letters to the editor like the ones above, in thinking about how a published opinion may be revealing its author's true self to some of his or her casual acquaintances. I confess I've actually tweeted words to that effect.
Now, when was Scrooge his true self? When he hoarded coal to keep his clerk at work in a freezing shop, or after the spirits worked their magic and he gave his clerk a raise?
I will argue that those letter writers are not themselves, but that their true selves are capable of great and generous words and deeds.
Because, Christmas Day.
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