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Christmas And The Spirit Of Democracy Post by :window Category :Essays Author :Samuel Mcchord Crothers Date :September 2011 Read :1446

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Christmas And The Spirit Of Democracy

"Times have changed," said old Scrooge, as he sat by my fireside on Christmas Eve. "The Christmas Carol" had been read, as our custom was, and the children had gone to bed, so that only Scrooge and I remained to watch the dying embers.

"Times have changed, and I am not appreciated as I was in the middle of the last century. People don't seem to be having so good a time. You remember the Christmas when I was converted? What larks! Up to that time I had been 'a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.' Those were the very words that described me. Then the Christmas Spirit took possession of me and--presto! change! All at once I became a new creature. I began to hurry about, giving all sorts of things to all sorts of people. You remember how I scattered turkeys over the neighborhood, shouting, 'Here's the turkey! Hello! Whoop! How are you! Merry Christmas!' And then I sat down and chuckled over my generosity till I cried. I was having the time of my life. You see, I hadn't been used to that sort of thing, and it went to my head.

"And how grateful everybody was! They took everything in the spirit in which it was offered, and asked no questions. Everywhere there was an outstretched hand and a fervent God-bless-you for every gift. Nobody twitted me about the past. I was all at once elevated to the position of an earthly Providence.

"Talk of fun! Was there ever such a practical joke as to scare Bob Cratchit within an inch of his life and then raise his salary before he could say Jack Robinson! You should have seen him jump! How the little Cratchits shouted for joy! And when the thing was written up, all Anglo-Saxondom was smiling through its tears and saying: 'That's just like us. God bless us, every one.'

"But it's different now. Something has got into the Christmas Spirit. Doing good doesn't seem such a jolly thing as it once was, and you can't carry it off with a whoop and hello. People are getting critical. In these days a charitable shilling doesn't go so far as it used to, and doesn't buy nearly so many God-bless-you's. You complain of the rise in the price of the necessaries of life. It isn't a circumstance to the increase in the cost of luxuries like benevolence. Almost every one looks forward to the time when he can afford to be generous. And when he is generous he likes to feel generous, and to have other people sympathize with him. It's only human nature. A man can't be thinking about himself all the time; he gets that tired feeling that your scientific people in these days call altruism. It is an inability to concentrate his mind on his own concerns. In spite of himself his thoughts wander off to other people's affairs, and he has an impulse to do them good. Now in my day it was the easiest thing in the world to do good. The only thing necessary was to feel good-natured, and there you were! Nowadays, the way of the benefactor is hard. It's so difficult that I understand you actually have Schools of Philanthropy."

Scrooge shrugged his shoulders and seemed to shrivel at the thought of these horrible institutions.

"Just fancy," he continued, "how I should have felt on that blessed Christmas night, if, instead of starting off as an amateur angel, feeling my wings growing every moment, I had been compelled to prepare for an entrance examination. I suppose I should have been put with the backward pupils whose early education had been neglected, and should have had to learn the A B C's of charity. School of Philanthropy! Ugh! And in the holidays, too!

"I have been visiting some elderly gentlemen who have had something of my experience with the Spirit of Christmas. Like me, they were converted somewhat late in life. They never were in as bad a way as I was, for I did business, you may remember, in a narrow street with quite sordid surroundings, while they were financiers in a large way. Yet I suppose that they, too, were 'squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinners,' though nobody had the courage to tell them so. Then they got tired of clutching, and their hearts warmed and their hands relaxed and they began to give. Never was such giving known before. It was a perfect deluge of beneficence. A mere catalogue of the gifts would make a Christmas carol of itself.

"But would you believe it, they never have got the fun out of it that I got when I filled the cab full of turkeys and set out for Camden town. The old Christmas feeling seems to have been chilled. The public has grown critical. Instead of dancing for joy, it looks suspiciously at the gifts and asks: 'Where did they get them?' It has been so impressed by the germ theory of disease that it foolishly fears that even money may be tainted. It's a preposterous situation. Generosity is a drug on the market, and gratitude can't be had at any reasonable price."

"Yes," I said, "you are quite right, public sentiment has changed. Gratitude is not so easily won as it was in your day, and it takes longer to transform a clutching, covetous old sinner into a serviceable philanthropist. But I do not think, Scrooge, that the Christmas Spirit has really vanished. He is only a little chastened and subdued by the Spirit of Democracy."

"I don't see what Democracy has to do with it," said Scrooge. "I'm sure that nobody ever accused me of being an aristocrat. What I am troubled about is the decay of gratitude. If I give a poor fellow a shilling, I ought to be allowed the satisfaction of having him remove his hat and say, 'Thank'ee, sir,' and he ought to say it as if he meant it. The heartiness of his thanksgiving is half the fun. It makes one feel good all over."

"But," I answered, "if the fellow happens to have a good memory he may recall the fact that yesterday you took two shillings from him, and he may think that the proper response to your sudden act of generosity is, 'Where's that other shilling?' That's what the Spirit of Democracy puts him up to. It's not so polite, but you must admit that it goes right to the point."

"I don't like it," said Scrooge.

"I thought you wouldn't. There are a great many people who don't like it. It's a twitting on facts that takes away a good deal of the pleasure of being generous."

"I should say it did," grumbled Scrooge. "It makes you feel mean just when you are most sensitive. Just think how I should have felt if, when I gave Bob Cratchit a dig in the waistcoat and told him that I had raised his salary, he had taken the opportunity to ask for back pay. It would have been most inopportune."

"You owed it to him, didn't you?"

"Yes, I suppose I did, if you choose to put it that way. But Bob wouldn't have put it that way; he wouldn't take such liberties. He took what I gave him; and when I gave him more than he expected, he was all the happier, and so was I. That's what made it all seem so nice and Christmasy. We were not thinking about rights and duties; it was all free grace."

"Now, Scrooge, you are getting at the point. There is no concealing the fact that the Spirit of Democracy makes himself unpleasant sometimes. He breaks up the old pleasant relations existing not only between the Lords and the Commons, but between you and Bob Cratchit. Man is naturally a superstitious creature, and is prone to worship the first thing that comes in his way. When a poor fellow sees a person who is better off than himself, he jumps to the conclusion that he is a better man, and bows down before him, as before a wonder-working Providence. When this Providence smiles upon him, he is glad, and receives the bounty with devout thankfulness. It is what the old theologians used to call 'an uncovenanted mercy.'

"All this is very pleasant to one who can sign himself by the grace of God king, or president of a coal company, or some such thing as that. The gratification extends to all the minor grades of greatness as well. The great man is ordained to give as it pleases him and the little men to receive with due meekness. The great man is always the man who has something. I suppose, Scrooge, that in your busy life, first scraping money together and then dispensing it in your joyous Christmasy way, you have not had much time for general reading or even for listening to sermons?"

"I have always attended Divine Service since my conversion," answered Scrooge, piously; "as for listening--"

"What I was going to say was that if you had attended to such matters, you must have noticed how much of the literature of good-will is devoted to the praise of the Blessed Inequalities. How the changes are rung on the Strong and the Weak, the Wise and the Ignorant, the Rich and the Poor; especially the Poor, who form the hub of the philanthropic universe. Nobody seems to meet another on the level. Everybody is either looking up or looking down, and they are taught how to do it. I remember attending the annual meeting of the Society for the Relief of Indigent Children. The indigent children were first fed and then insulted by a plethoric gentleman, who addressed to them a long discourse on indigence and the various duties that it entailed. And no one of the children was allowed to throw things at the speaker. They had all been taught to look grateful.

"Now these inequalities do exist, and so long as they exist all sorts of helpful offices have place. The trouble is that good people are all the time doing their best to make the inequalities permanent. You have heard how divines have interpreted the text, 'The poor ye have always with you.' The good old doctrine has been that the relation between those who have not and those who have should be that of one-sided dependence. The Ignorant must depend upon the Wise, the Weak upon the Strong, the Poor upon the Rich. As for the black, yellow, and various parti-colored races, they must depend upon the White Man, who gayly walks off with their burdens without so much as saying 'By your leave.'

"Now it is against this whole theory, however beautifully or piously expressed, that the protest has come. The Spirit of Democracy is a bold iconoclast, and goes about smashing our idols. He laughs at the pretensions of the Strong and the Wise and the Rich to have created the things they possess. They are not the masters of the feast. They are only those of us who have got at the head of the line, sometimes by unmannerly pushing, and have secured a place at the first table. We are not here by their leave, and we may go directly to the source of supplies. They are not benefactors, but beneficiaries. The Spirit of Democracy insists that they shall know their place. He rebukes even the Captains of Industry, and when they answer insolently, he suggests that they be reduced to the ranks. Even toward bishops and other clergy his manner lacks that perfect reverence that belonged to an earlier time; yet he listens to them respectfully when they talk sense.

"It is this spirit that plays the mischief with many of the merry old ways of doing good. To scatter turkeys or colleges among a multitude of gratefully dependent folks is the very poetry of philanthropy. But to satisfy the curiosity of an independent citizen as to your title to these things is a different matter. The more independent people are, the harder it is to do good to them. They are apt to have their own ideas of what they want."

"It's a pity, then, to have them so independent," said Scrooge; "it spoils people to get above their proper station in life."

"Ah! there you are," I answered; "I feared it would come to that. With all your exuberant good-will you haven't altogether got beyond the theory that has come down from the time when the first cave-dweller bestowed on his neighbor the bone he himself didn't need, and established the pleasant relation of benefactor and beneficiary. It gave him such a warm feeling in his heart that he naturally wanted to make the relation permanent. First Cave-dweller felt a little disappointed next day when Second Cave-dweller, instead of coming to him for another bone, preferred to take his pointed stick and go hunting on his own account. It seemed a little ungrateful in him, and First Cave-dweller felt that it would be no more than right to arrange legislation in the cave so that this should not happen again.

"Christian Charity is a very beautiful thing, but sometimes it gets mixed up with these ideas of the cave-dwellers. Sometimes it perpetuates the very evils that it laments. Perhaps you won't mind my reading a bit from a homily of St. Augustine on this very subject. St. Augustine was a man who was a good many centuries ahead of his time. He begins his argument by saying: 'All love, dear brethren, consists in wishing well to those who are loved.' This seems like a harmless proposition. It is the sort of thing you might hear in a sermon and think no more about. But St. Augustine goes to the root of the matter, and asks what it means to wish well to the person you are trying to help. He comes to the conclusion that if you really wish him well, you must wish him to be at least as well off and as well able to take care of himself as you are. The first thing you know, you are wishing to have him reach a point where he will not look up to you at all. 'There is a certain friendliness by which we desire at one time or another to do good to those we love. But how if there be no good that we can do? We ought not to wish men to be wretched that we may be enabled to practice works of mercy. Thou givest bread to the hungry, but better were it that none hungered and thou hadst none to give to. Thou clothest the naked; oh, that all men were clothed and that this need existed not! Take away the wretched, and the works of mercy will be at an end, but shall the ardor of charity be quenched? With a truer touch of love thou lovest the happy man to whom there is no good office that thou canst do; purer will that love be and more unalloyed. For if thou hast done a kindness to the wretched, perhaps thou wishest him to be subject to thee. He was in need, thou didst bestow; thou seemest to thyself greater because thou didst bestow than he upon whom it was bestowed. Wish him to be thine equal.'

"There, Scrooge, is the text for the little Christmas sermon that I should like to preach to you and to your elderly wealthy friends who feel that they are not so warmly appreciated as they once were. 'Wish him to be thine equal'--that is the test of charity. It is all right to give a poor devil a turkey. But are you anxious that he shall have as good a chance as you have to buy a turkey for himself? Are you really enthusiastic about so equalizing opportunities that by and by you shall be surrounded by happy, self-reliant people who have no need of your benefactions?

"Do you know, Scrooge, I sometimes think that it is time for some one to write a new 'Christmas Carol,' a carol that will make the world know how people are feeling and some of the best things they are doing in these days. It should be founded on Justice and not on Mercy. We should feed up Bob Cratchit and put some courage into him, and he should come to you and ask a living wage not as a favor, but as a right. And you, Scrooge, would not be offended at him, but you would sit down like a sensible man and figure it out with him. And when the talk was over, you wouldn't feel particularly generous, and he wouldn't feel particularly grateful; it would be simple business. But you would like each other better, and the business would seem more worth while.

"And then, when you went out with the Spirit of Christmas, you would ask the Spirit of Democracy to go with you and show you the new things that are most worth seeing. He wouldn't wait for the night, for the cheeriest things would be those that go on during business hours. He would show you some sights to make your heart glad. He would show you vast numbers of persons who have got tired of the worship of the Blessed Inequalities, and who are going in for the Equalities. They have a suspicion that there is not so much difference between the Great and the Small as has been supposed, and that what difference there is does not prevent a frank comradeship and a perfect understanding. They think it is better to work with people than to work for them. They think that one of the inalienable rights of man is the right to make his own mistakes and to learn the lesson from them without too much prompting. So they are a little shy of many of the more intrusive forms of philanthropy. But you should see what they are up to.

"The Spirit of Democracy will take you to visit a school that is not at all like the school you used to go to, Scrooge. The teacher has forgotten his rod and his rules and his airs of superiority. He is not teaching at all, so far as you can see. He is the centre of a group of eager learners, who are using their own wits and not depending on his. They are so busy observing, comparing, reasoning, and finding out things for themselves that he can hardly get in a word edgewise. And he seems to like it, though it is clear that if they keep on at this rate they will soon get ahead of their teacher.

"And the Spirit of Democracy will take you to a children's court, where the judge does not seem like a judge at all, but like a big brother who shows the boys what they ought to do and sees that they do it. He will take you to a little republic, where boys and girls who have defied laws that they did not understand are making laws of their own and enforcing them in a way that makes the ordinary citizen feel ashamed of himself. They do it all so naturally that you wonder that nobody had thought of the plan before. He will take you to pleasant houses in unpleasant parts of the city, and there you will meet pleasant young people who are having a very good time with their neighbors and who are getting to be rather proud of their neighborhood. After you have had a cup of tea, they may talk over with you the neighborhood problems. If you have any sensible suggestion to make, these young people will listen to you; but if you begin to talk condescendingly about the Poor, they will change the subject. They are not philanthropists--they are only neighbors.

"I hope he may take you, Scrooge--this Spirit of Democracy--to some of the charity organizations I know about. I realize that you are prejudiced against that sort of thing, it seems so cold and calculating, compared with your impulsive way of doing good. And you will probably quote the lines about

Organized charity scrimped and iced
In the name of a cautious, statistical Christ.

"Never mind about the statistics; they only mean that these people are doing business on a larger scale than did the good people who could carry all the details in their heads. What I want you to notice is the way in which the scientific interest does away with that patronizing pity that was the hardest thing to bear in the old-time charities. These modern experts go about mending broken fortunes in very much the same way in which surgeons mend broken bones. The patient doesn't feel under any oppressive weight of obligation, he has given them such a good opportunity to show their skill. And the doctors have caught the spirit, too. Instead of looking wise and waiting for people to come to them in the last extremity, they have enlisted in Social Service. You should see them going about opening windows, and forcing people to poke their heads out into the night air, and making landlords miserable by their calculations about cubic feet, and investigating sweat-shops and analyzing foodstuffs. It's their way of bringing in a Merry Christmas.

"And the Spirit of Democracy will take you to workshops, where you may see the new kind of Captain of Industry in friendly consultation with the new kind of Labor Leader. For the new Captain is not a chief of banditti, interested only in the booty he can get for himself, and the new Leader is not a conspirator waiting for a chance to plunge his knife into the more successful bandit's back. These two are responsible members of a great industrial army, and they realize their responsibility. They have not met to exchange compliments. They are not sentimentalists, but shrewd men of affairs who have met to plan a campaign for the common welfare. They don't take any credit for it, for they do not expect to give to any man any more than his due; yet there are a good many Christmas dinners involved in the cool, business-like consultation.

"Afterward, the Spirit of Democracy will take you to a church where the minister is preaching from the text, 'Ye are all kings and priests,' as if he believed it; and you will believe it too, and go on your way wondering at the many sacred offices in the world.

"You will hurry on from the church to shake hands with the new kind of politician. He is not the dignified 'statesman' you have read about and admired afar off, who has every qualification for high office except the ability to get himself elected. This man knows the game of politics. He is not fastidious, and likes nothing better than to be in the thick of a scrimmage. He has not the scholar's scorn of 'the aggregate mind.' He thinks that it is a very good kind of mind if it is only rightly interpreted. He has the idea that what all of us want is better than what some few of us want, and that when all of us make up our minds to work together we can get what we want without asking anybody's leave. He thinks that what all of us want is fair play, and so he goes straight for that without much regard for special interests. It is a simple programme, but it's wonderful what a difference it makes.

"There never was a time, Scrooge, when the message of good-will was so widely interpreted in action, or when it took hold of so many kinds of men. Perhaps you wouldn't mind my reading another little bit from St. Augustine: 'Two are those to whom thou doest alms; two hunger, one for bread, the other for righteousness. Between these two famishing persons thou, the doer of the good work, art set. The one craves what he may eat, the other craves what he may imitate. Thou feedest the one, give thyself as a pattern to the other, so hast thou given to both. The one thou hast caused to thank thee for satisfying his hunger, the other thou hast made to imitate thee by setting him a worthy example.'

"It is this hunger for simple justice that is the great thing. And there are people who are giving their whole lives to satisfy it. What we need is to realize what it all means, and to get that joyous thrill over it that came to you when you found for the first time that life consisted not in getting, but in giving. It's a wonderful giving, this giving of one's self, and people do appreciate it. When you have ministered to a person's self-respect, when you have contributed to his self-reliance, when you have inspired him to self-help, you have given him something. And you are conscious of it, and so is he, though you both find it hard to express in the old terms. All the old Christmas cheer is in these reciprocities of friendship that have lost every touch of condescension. We need some genial imagination to picture to us all the happiness that is being diffused by people who have come to look upon themselves not as God's almoners, but as sharers with others in the Common Good. I wish we had a new Dickens to write it up."

"If you are waiting for that, you will wait a long time," said Scrooge.

"Perhaps so, but the people are here all the same, and they are getting on with their work."

(The end)
Samuel McChord Crothers's essay: Christmas And The Spirit Of Democracy

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