Friday, December 19, 2008

Christmas of Long Ago

In the Workhouse: Christmas Day

It is Christmas Day in the workhouse,
And the cold, bare walls are bright
With garlands of green and holly,
Ad the place is a pleasant sight;
For with clean-washed hands and faces,
In a long and hungry line
The paupers sit at the table,
For this is the hour they dine.

And the guardians and their ladies,
Although the wind is east,
Have come in their furs and wrappers,
To watch their charges feast;
To smile and be condescending,
Put pudding on pauper plates.
To be hosts at the workhouse banquet
They've paid for — with the rates.

Christmas Day in the Workhouse

Oh, the paupers are meek and lowly
With their "Thank'ee kindly, mum's!'"
So long as they fill their stomachs,
What matter it whence it comes!
But one of the old men mutters,
And pushes his plate aside:
"Great God!" he cries, "but it chokes me!
For this is the day she died!"

The guardians gazed in horror,
The master's face went white;
"Did a pauper refuse the pudding?"
"Could their ears believe aright?"
Then the ladies clutched their husbands,
Thinking the man would die,
Struck by a bolt, or something,
By the outraged One on high.

But the pauper sat for a moment,
Then rose 'mid silence grim,
For the others had ceased to chatter
And trembled in every limb.
He looked at the guardians' ladies,
Then, eyeing their lords, he said,
"I eat not the food of villains
Whose hands are foul and red:

"Whose victims cry for vengeance
From their dark, unhallowed graves."
"He's drunk!" said the workhouse master,
"Or else he's mad and raves."
"Not drunk or mad," cried the pauper,
"But only a haunted beast,
Who, torn by the hounds and mangled,
Declines the vulture's feast.

"I care not a curse for the guardians,
And I won't be dragged away;
Just let me have the fit out,
It's only on Christmas Day
That the black past comes to goad me,
And prey on my burning brain;
I'll tell you the rest in a whisper —
I swear I won't shout again.

"Keep your hands off me, curse you!
Hear me right out to the end.
You come here to see how paupers
The season of Christmas spend;.
You come here to watch us feeding,
As they watched the captured beast.
Here's why a penniless pauper
Spits on your paltry feast.

"Do you think I will take your bounty,
And let you smile and think
You're doing a noble action
With the parish's meat and drink?
Where is my wife, you traitors —
The poor old wife you slew?
Yes, by the God above me,
My Nance was killed by you!

'Last winter my wife lay dying,
Starved in a filthy den;
I had never been to the parish —
I came to the parish then.
I swallowed my pride in coming,
For ere the ruin came,
I held up my head as a trader,
And I bore a spotless name.

"I came to the parish, craving
Bread for a starving wife,
Bread for the woman who'd loved me
Through fifty years of life;
And what do you think they told me,
Mocking my awful grief,
That 'the House' was open to us,
But they wouldn't give 'out relief'.

"I slunk to the filthy alley —
'Twas a cold, raw Christmas Eve —
And the bakers' shops were open,
Tempting a man to thieve;
But I clenched my fists together,
Holding my head awry,
So I came to her empty-handed
And mournfully told her why.

"Then I told her the house was open;
She had heard of the ways of that,
For her bloodless cheeks went crimson,
and up in her rags she sat,
Crying, 'Bide the Christmas here, John,
We've never had one apart;
I think I can bear the hunger —
The other would break my heart.'

"All through that eve I watched her,
Holding her hand in mine,
Praying the Lord and weeping,
Till my lips were salt as brine;
I asked her once if she hungered,
And as she answered 'No' ,
T'he moon shone in at the window,
Set in a wreath of snow.

"Then the room was bathed in glory,
And I saw in my darling's eyes
The faraway look of wonder
That comes when the spirit flies;
And her lips were parched and parted,
And her reason came and went.
For she raved of our home in Devon,
Where our happiest years were spent.

"And the accents, long forgotten,
Came back to the tongue once more.
For she talked like the country lassie
I woo'd by the Devon shore;
Then she rose to her feet and trembled,
And fell on the rags and moaned,
And, 'Give me a crust — I'm famished —
For the love of God!' she groaned.

"I rushed from the room like a madman
And flew to the workhouse gate,
Crying, 'Food for a dying woman!'
And the answer came, 'Too late.'
They drove me away with curses;
Then I fought with a dog in the street
And tore from the mongrel's clutches
A crust he was trying to eat.

Christmas Day in the Workhouse

"Back through the filthy byways!
Back through the trampled slush!
Up to the crazy garret,
Wrapped in an awful hush;
My heart sank down at the threshold,
And I paused with a sudden thrill.
For there, in the silv'ry moonlight,
My Nance lay, cold and still.

"Up to the blackened ceiling,
The sunken eyes were cast —
I knew on those lips, all bloodless,
My name had been the last;
She called for her absent husband —
O God! had I but known! —
Had called in vain, and, in anguish,
Had died in that den — alone.

"Yes, there, in a land of plenty,
Lay a loving woman dead,
Cruelly starved and murdered
for a loaf of the parish bread;
At yonder gate, last Christmas,
I craved for a human life,
You, who would feed us paupers,
What of my murdered wife!"

'There, get ye gone to your dinners,
Don't mind me in the least,
Think of the happy paupers
Eating your Christmas feast;
And when you recount their blessings
In your smug parochial way,
Say what you did for me, too,
Only last Christmas Day."

George R Sims

George R Sims (1847-1922) was a campaigning journalist specialising in stories on poverty and poor housing published in the series entitled How the Poor Live and then in a column in the new Sunday Referee.

By the middle of the century, Christmas Day (or more often Boxing Day, December 26th) had a became a regular occasion for local dignitaries to visit their union workhouse and dispense food and largesse. The workhouse dining-hall would be decorated and entertainments organised. Such occasions were, however, seen by some as condescending and patronising — the standpoint from which In the Workhouse: Christmas Day is written.


BB-Idaho said...

It seems the underside of the industrial revolution inspired such Christmas literature as Sims
and Dickens. As I youngster, I was
saddened by the Little Match Girl story. The almshouse, workhouse and poorhouse are gone, but I suspect a visit down to Salvation Army on Christmas day might give a glimpse
of lingering remnants of the phenomenon.

The Griper said...

he nods, yes. it created a separation of life too. rural vs urban where everyone knows everyone vs a place that no one knows anyone.

and stories such as the "match girl" and this one will find the big city as their setting.

and i cannot help but think of the contrasts of the two stories also along with the similarities.

the match girl has always been one of my favorite Christmas stories.

i think both stories serve as reminders that Christmas is about people and that we cannot wear blinders when it comes to people.

Lista said...

What a neat Poem! It is a poem about the Hypocrisy of doing good deeds for the wrong reasons, while not having any real love in one's heart.

I once heard someone say of church goers, "Just because the mouse is in the cookie jar, this does not make him a cookie.", so also "Just because someone goes to church, this does not make him a true Christian." I'd like to add now that Just because someone is a Republican, this does not mean that he necessarily cares about the poor.; or put another way, Just because someone is a Republican, this doesn't mean that he's a rich snob that does not care about the poor.

Perhaps this same thing could be said about Democrats as well. Just because someone is a Democrat, this does not mean that he necessarily cares about the poor., nor does it mean that he doesn't care and is controlling and lazy.

Some Democrats care more about either control or the desire to be taken care of and some Republicans are guilty, just as they have been accused, of caring only for the well being of the rich and not the poor. We need to be careful, though, that we do not Stereo Type each other. Some Republicans do care and others do not and the same exact thing can be said about the Democrats.

It does no good to deny the Hypocrisy and Selfishness that can exist on both sides. We all need to ask God continually to search our hearts and purify us of all wrong motives.

It does no good to Stereo Type. It does no good to behave in ways that justify these Stereo Types. It does no good to judge and point fingers. It does no good to scream and vent our anger. It does no good to refuse to compromise on anything at all.

This comment is aimed at who ever is listening. Republicans; Democrats; I'm talking to both of you! Would you please both just knock it off!!

Fortunately, there are good and sincere people in both parties and these are the ones who need to work together for the good of the whole country and all of mankind.

Lista said...

P.S. - Oh BTW, Griper, I absolutely love what you did with your blog. How pretty!! I love the ocean, especially when the waves hit the rocks. It's a nice color as well.

Anonymous said...

Hey Griper!

First, I love the blog's new look! Really neat.

Second, what a powerful poem! I had never read it before.

Hope you're having a great Advent/pre-Nativity season...

The Griper said...

he grins, yes it is a different look isn't it. thank you.

i am trying to stay away from politics for a while. there is a bigger message to get across now and one everyone should heed, i think.

Lista said...

Actually Griper,
My message of not Judging others, even those who are of the opposite Political Party, is a Christmas message because it has to do with Love. Not only do we need to Love each other in every day life, but we need to Love each other in the Political Arena as well.

The Griper said...

he grins, "yes, Lisa."

A Merry Christmas to you and yours. I'm glad I met you to be able to say that to you this year.

Lista said...

And a Merry Christmas to you too. Now you behave yourself, both in every day life and in Politics as well. LOL :)

Gayle said...

That's a wonderful poem, Griper. I've never read it before either. It truly does make one think, doesn't it. But what you do is make people think, and I hope that anyone who feels they should only be giving on Christmas Day and reads this will have an awakening. Thanks for posting it, and a very Merry Christmas to you and yours along with many blessings and good wishes for the New Year. :)


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