A class struggle Christmas Carol

Marianne Garneau looks at the classic story from an organizing perspective

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol — probably the most frequently adapted story of the season — is one that lays class stratification bare.

Every version maintains the core premise of a wealthy, miserly boss and his long-suffering employee. But the original novella was especially unequivocal. Yes, Scrooge is rich, and yes, Bob Cratchit is poor, but we see a stratospheric division pervade every moment of London life. The “Lord Mayor, in the stronghold of the mighty Mansion House, gave orders to his fifty cooks and butlers to keep Christmas as a Lord Mayor’s household should.” Only one movie adaptation that I have seen (Robert Zemeckis’s uncanny valley one — a more textually faithful adaptation than most) renders the scene: the cooks sarcastically throw a hunk of meat out the cellar kitchen window to a group of jealous street urchins; the meat is quickly stolen by a mangy dog that the young boys chase to no avail.

The poor are relegated to “prisons” and “workhouses” – of this Scrooge approves. Dickens knew that the conditions were rife with misery and abuse; charges were so starved, to discourage them from claiming this form of welfare relief, that some were discovered eating the putrid bones they crushed to make fertilizer.

But Dickens is clear that even the working class in 1840s London barely scrape by. The tailor’s wife is “lean.” The lighthouse men have “horny hands.” British society is sharply divided between a very tiny minority of wealthy versus a vast majority of working poor, or a 99% versus a 1%.

The very fact that this story of a miserly boss and his impoverished (unto his son’s death) employee would resonate through the ages says much about how the more things change under capitalism, the more they remain the same.

Side note: I once was flyering outside of a restaurant as part of a job action. I was filming a participating worker when Tim Gunn wandered into the shot. I put the camera down and the worker explained why she was there — she had just been fired by the restaurant’s owner for trying to start a union. Gunn’s sympathetic comment (delivered in his unmatchable cadence): “how Dickensian.”

It’s worth noting that most of A Christmas Carol‘s textural scenes showing the working class at home and at work are left out of film adaptations: in the original, Scrooge visits a lighthouse and a miners’ quarters with the ghost of Christmas present. There is also the affecting scene in which we learn his servants sold his bed curtains before his body was even removed, in the hypothetical future in which he dies alone and unrepentant.

Why are these scenes left out? The novel form is already prone to follow the development of a single protagonist, but the film medium which grew out of it is even worse at rendering collective action or agency. Refracted through the even more individualist lens of film, Dickens’ tale becomes almost a pure human interest story rather than a broader class commentary. Thus, the collective scenes about working class life are the first to go.

But this isn’t a website about the misery and moral worth of the working class. It’s about organizing.

In that vein, I want to point out a few scenes from the Muppet version of A Christmas Carol that are worth considering.

With an ensemble cast (more than most adaptations, since this one is a musical) it perhaps makes sense that the best inklings at collective action occur here.

One is in the very first scene: the whole town breaks into song and dance to explain to the audience what a miser Scrooge is. As the number crescendos, the townspeople sing in unison

There goes mister heartless / there goes mister cruel
He never gives, he only takes / he lets his hunger rule
If being mean’s a way of life you practice and rehearse
Then all that work is paying off cuz Scrooge is getting worse.

The moment it ends — when Scrooge arrives at the threshold of his counting house, where they have followed him — he turns around, and everyone quickly averts their eyes and carries about their business (“look at the time!” “I’ve got to move”).

But imagine for a second if they hadn’t. No matter how much money you have, if the entire town is willing to march to your doorstep and confront you — and DO something — your Christmas goose is cooked. Alas, the moment passes.

A moment later, however, we see an actual collective action. Crucially, in this rendering of the story, Bob Cratchit is not Scrooge’s only clerk. A bevy of rodent accountants work in the office, and they, like Bob, are all cold from Scrooge’s stinginess with the coal. And so they engage in a march on the boss, demanding another piece for the fire.

It unfolds like many such unplanned actions do: Scrooge threatens them with unemployment, and they lose their nerve, each skittering back to his desk.

The march on the boss may seem like just a mob with a message, but there are ways of ensuring its success. Rodents should appoint roles: one to signal the start of the action to everyone (“go” time), all of the other participants to then surround Scrooge, another rodent to announce the demand, another to immediately start delivering a testimonial about how his fingers can’t scritch the ledger in the cold, another to step up with another personalized testimonial, and — this is important, because by now Scrooge will be trying to interrupt and re-gain control of the situation with his threats of unemployment and his “humbug” — another rodent to interrupt the boss and tell him he’s going to have to wait until fellow worker rodent is finished.

After their failed coal action, the clerks go on to witness Scrooge extend his uncompromising miserliness to others, repudiating his nephew’s invitation to dinner, physically throwing out charity collectors, and even kicking a caroler into the snow — in other words, denying all those asking him for something, and even those scarcely asking for anything at all.

But miraculously they screw up their courage to ask Scrooge one more thing: a day off tomorrow, Christmas Day. At closing time, they hold another march on the boss. This time they do it better. Bob delivers the demand, and the other accountants back him up. When Scrooge initially demurs, they argue that this time off is customary, and point out every other business will be closed anyway. With each line, the rodents chime in: “yeah! customary! yeah! entire day!” This time, Scrooge — well before the spirits have made any dent in his hardened heart, complaining about his pocket being picked, but confronted with an unwavering staff — this time Scrooge acquiesces, and the workers prevail.