"The clerk observed that it was only once a year.
“ 'A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December!' said Scrooge, buttoning his great-coat to the chin." (From A Christmas Carol, ch. 1)
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1843--the year A Christmas Carol was first published--a time when life in England after the Industrial Revolution was marked by growing social inequality, exploitation and dehumanization. We're lucky that so much has changed since then. Right?
Tomorrow, our Christmas dinner will be missing one family member because he has to work, and not because he's "essential personnel." We're not talking about fighting fires or staffing emergency rooms or providing police service or offering transportation: My family member works in a retail establishment. For a pittance. If he puts in forty hours for 52 weeks, he'll barely rise above the threshold that qualifies a person for food stamps--and then only because he's single. If he had any dependents, he'd qualify for every assistance program in the book, despite the fact that he works full-time.
Anyone notice a slight disjunction here? Our retail workers are apparently not valuable enough to deserve a living wage. Yet on the other hand they're so valuable that they can't be spared, not even for a few hours, on Christmas Day--because what they do is so important. (Not so important that they deserve overtime pay for working on a holiday, of course...)
(And no, it's not that one retail establishment that everyone talks about. Bad as that place is, sometimes I worry that we single out particular big-box chains as though they are the sole problem, when the real issue lies in the system itself. Focusing on one or two "big names," I fear, can have the effect of demonizing particular businesses in a way that leads us to neglect to address the systemic greed that pervades everywhere, not just in the expected places.)
How bad have things gotten? I mean, even pre-ghostly-visitation Scrooge consented, however begrudgingly, to having Cratchit "pick his pocket every twenty-fifth of December." Yet today's clerks (pronounced "clarks," if you're British or an Anglophile) don't even get that much. The pre-conversion Scrooge may have bitched and moaned about holiday pay, but he still acquiesced to the social norm. Today, though, we apparently can't cease from buying and selling, not even for one day.
Recently when I complained about my family member's holiday work schedule to a friend who's always been a staunch advocate of working people, I was a bit surprised at the reaction: "Too bad about the holiday, but that's small stuff in the face of larger injustices like low pay, lack of benefits," etc. I generally agree; if retail workers at this establishment were adequately paid and cared for in other ways, perhaps missing Christmas dinner to run a cash register (or at least getting paid double-time if you did) wouldn't be an especially big deal. And if only some of the problems with our current service-based economy can be addressed, yes, we should go after the bigger ones.
But to my way of thinking, the holiday issue is symbolic, a metonym for the larger issue of believing that the lives of lower-paid working people don't matter, a more-than-century-old echo of Scrooge's attempt to "edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance."
I also came up against unexpected resistance to workers' holiday rights when I discussed it around Thanksgiving time with some other acquaintances, whose family members--"essential personnel"--have always had to work holidays. "People adjust," one person told me, "so the retail workers should stop whining."
Yes, people adjust. Our family did--for years. My younger brother and I were the "late babies" in a large extended family, and when we were small, our much older adult cousins had already entered the working world, as firefighters and police officers. While our smaller nuclear family celebrated fairly consistently (on Christmas Eve, thanks to our Scandinavian roots), it wasn't unusual for our extended family gathering to take place on the 23rd, or the 26th, or even later or earlier when necessary.
And this was a good thing: from an early age I learned how to adapt, and how to distinguish custom from rigidity. Knowing how to build flexibility into traditions has proven to be an essential life skill, especially as the years have taken their toll and forced us to adapt to bigger, unavoidable changes, like the loss of loved ones. (For instance, this marks my twentieth Christmas without my parents--and no, I'm not that old.) When I see the ill effects of unwanted changes on families that were more absolutist and unyielding than mine, I'm grateful that part of what I learned from our family celebrations was flexibility. But retail work on Christmas Day--unlike, for example, firefighting--is not essential, and we shouldn't be pretending it is.
I am grateful for the many people who do perform essential functions and must work on holidays--like my cousins did for so many years. I understand that for many, working on holidays isn't optional. I also understand that there are far bigger issues for all of us to be concerned about right now, and it may sound to some like I'm harping on minutiae.
But when I re-read A Christmas Carol, I'm reminded of how much that story still resonates culturally, even with people who have never read the actual book. Look at how much of its vocabulary has become our own: "Scrooge" is in the dictionary, "Bah, humbug!" is what we all say when we're just not feeling that holiday spirit, "God bless us, every one!" is still being used in contemporary song lyrics, the "ghost of Christmas past/present/future" is a recurrent trope (even leading to silly Facebook memes that make fun of grammar geeks, such as "the ghost of future perfect subjunctive"). This reminds me of why symbolism matters, and as I said above, I see this issue as symbolic of a far deeper problem: that the making of money is venerated above all else, and that human relationships, experiences, celebrations, rituals and connections have taken a back seat to the false gods of commerce.
Critics of Dickens have argued for years about whether Dickens was socially radical (because he called for more humane treatment of working people), or socially conservative (because the solutions to injustice envisioned in his novels are fanciful fictions, framed in terms of individual conversion rather than more broadly systemic socioeconomic changes). I'd argue that we make a mistake if we fall into that "either/or" trap. (Right now, the false dichotomy seems to be one of our most pervasive cultural logical fallacies...but I digress.)
Yes, we need the whole system to change, as I mentioned above. Many might hope for their own Scrooge-like boss to be freaked out in the middle of the night by a ghost wearing the chain "forged in life," made "link by link" through turning a blind eye to human needs. And yet as long as the system itself venerates profit above humanity, not enough will have changed.
Yet social critics who get mired in the structural side of that argument would do well to remember that systems only change when people do. We can't create a world in which human needs are prioritized unless there are enough of us who believe that doing so is desirable. If we want a society that takes care of its needy (beyond the "prisons and workhouses" that Scrooge and his ilk call for), an economic system that truly gives people from all walks of life meaningful opportunities to improve their lives, that pays workers fairly and treats them with dignity (including appropriate time off), a culture that values some things beyond the financial bottom line--we need a society made up of people who are committed to this vision.
A lot of people need to change their minds. A lot of people need to "receive the visitation" from ghosts of past, present and future, to understand the harm done to all of us when the quest for profits is deemed more important than the compassionate addressing of human needs. For society to change, individuals must change. And before change can become reality, we need to be able to imagine it--which is one reason why I've never believed that literary fiction is a purely fanciful thing.
Wishing a Merry Christmas to all the readers who celebrate it. And a special thanks to those who must spend their holiday working--either because they truly are providing essential functions that help all of us, or because they are presently subject to the whims of an economic system that does not yet realize what Dickens wrote in 1843, in the voice of Marley's Ghost to Scrooge:
"[Hu]mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”