Christmas in the Workhouse

One thing about the Christmas and winter holiday celebrations is that they can occasion the sharing of strands of different traditions. For the teenager in the house, hardly old enough to have traditions, it’s been watching Hogfather,*  and at least for this year, as many of the Matrix movies** as can be found to stream. For the wife, it’s been revisiting a memorable-to-her Seventies’ Christmas TV movie The Gathering.***

The Gathering stars Ed Asner and Maureen Stapleton. The former not yet transformed from the comic Lou Grant of the Mary Tyler Moore Show  to the more dramatic Lou Grant of the spinoff series, and the later known only to most as the ditsy wife of Archie Bunker. Both were capable actors, and the objective pleasures of this cheaply and quickly made TV movie are the scenes where the two of them get to show off some of the range the viewing public probably didn’t know they had yet. The script’s story by James Poe could be viewed as a blander suburban-set predecessor to The Royal Tenenbaums,  with a thoughtless and self-centered older patriarch trying to reunite his varied family and his connection to them.

One lovely scene stood out for me, one odd enough that it could have made it into a Wes Anderson version. Male family members surround the partially redeemed patriarch Asner amid Christmas decorations in the old family home to enact what is presented as a family Christmas ritual. Adapting a broad Cockneyish accent, Asner recites a poem he ascribes to Rudyard Kipling while another family member, who well knows the piece, “bleeps” offending words with a little Zuzu Bailey Christmas ornament bell.

Readers here will know this’ll ring the Parlando bell too. I had to know more about this poem! First off, there’s no evidence that it’s by Kipling, though its audience would likely have been familiar with Kipling’s poetic style. Rather it’s an Edwardian parody of unknown authorship of an earlier Victorian sentimental poem by George R. Sims.  Sims’ poem is a critique of the limits and constraints of the workhouse solution**** of poverty and vulnerable citizens without support, couched in a Dickensian weeper of a personal story by a poor man who the system has failed. The original aims to engender angry tears.

The parody on the other hand is a much more compact work, though too a critique of the same workhouse system and limits of charity. This work by an unknown author is meant to make one’s anger laugh at such human coarseness. It can be enjoyed, immaturely, as simple travesty, a variation of the “Jingle Bells, Batman smells…” substitution of sentimental holiday cheer with the lyrical equivalent of fart noises or singing dogs. But Batman is a fairytale character who wears his underwear on the outside of his tights, and riding a sleigh to grandma’s house is unexperienced nostalgia; while residents of a workhouse, or the unhoused modern equivalents, are actual fellow human beings who we emphasize with and aid imperfectly.

If you’re of the mood to shout “balls” at unexamined Christmas cheer or the faults of Capitalism, or if you’ve ever been condescended to by a “better,” then you’re the audience for this piece. Perhaps you’re not of that mood? Well then, here are two Christian Christmas hymns the Parlando Project has done: Christina Rossetti’s sad-sounding yet beautiful and joyous “In the Bleak Midwinter”  and my adaptation of Henry Wadsworth’s Longfellow’s “The Three Kings”  which is full of precise majesty even with undernotes of parental anxiety.

Christmas in the Workhouse chords

Here’s a chord sheet in case you want to form your own workhouse chorus to sing this one

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In the 1977 movie, the missing but rhyming rude words of this ditty were assumed to be understood even if missing. In modern TV standards they’d all be allowed. Rude British slang probably even adds unintended charm to American audiences. “Beer” of course isn’t a curse other than to abstainers, though too much may be a burden to be coarsely unburdened of. “Balls” or bollocks are testicles, and patriarchally still somehow measurably more polite than the “c word” (also used more freely in British than American slang.) “Sods” is more obscure, but is short for Sodomite, which gets its suppositorian retort from the don’t ask, but will tell, crusty veteran.

Assault your tender ears with my performance of “Christmas in the Workhouse”  using the player below. No player to be seen? This highlighted hyperlink will serve.  I was aiming for a bit of the early Billy Bragg sound for this one, but I ended up somewhere else nearby. Wife and teenager were dragged away from their Matrix series home-viewing festival to play members of the workhouse chorus, so the least you can do is listen. Happy Holidays to all you intoxicated, genital flaunting, gender-queer, ass-owners who despite it all manage to listen to a variety of musical presentations combined with a variety of words — only some of which are solemn — here.

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*A wonderful British TV movie presentation of an episode from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Unreservedly recommended.

**I saw the first one and liked it well enough to not have a great desire to see the continuations.

***Footnotes, it’s like even more gifts to unwrap after that package of socks — and wait…it’s… another…pair of…socks.  Watching The Gathering  made me grateful for the much higher standards expected of modern “event television” productions. The Gathering  won an outstanding dramatic event Emmy for 1977, so it was considered good of kind for that era.

****Workhouses were a British invention to solve the problem of the chronically unemployed, unhoused, indebted, and sometimes frail or mentally abnormal citizens. The idea was that if you couldn’t scrape together enough to survive otherwise your option was to be sent via government edict to a facility where you’d be given enough to arguably survive under a discipline and order that might include being treated as inmate labor.

This sounds exactly Dickensian and out of the mouth of Scrooge before conversion, but this solution was also widely adopted in America. Even in my childhood I can remember driving with my dad past a local Iowa “county farm,” which was founded on the same principle. In practice these institutions varied from hell-on-earth abusive places through ascending circles of shame and shaming up to sites that, at least when under the best administrations, may have been not altogether worse to what came before and after. The degradation was often “designed-in,” as the workhouse was supposed to make even the worst of wage-labor situations look better than the alternative.

In some ways then, today’s piece continues my honoring of the life of Ethna McKiernan, who worked with the unhoused professionally up until the onset of her final illness.

2 thoughts on “Christmas in the Workhouse

    1. Nice of you to say that. Thanks.

      I kind of feel the same way regarding the process that precedes the posts: I often don’t know the poems or even their authors, and so I start asking questions that I feel compelled to answer. In this process, what starts out as “Hey, I bet this set of words could be combined with music” ends up connecting me with some wider thing.

      Liked by 1 person

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