Christmas Day 2020 by Susan Price

"Oh no! No! Not Earth 2020!"


Christmas Day in the Workhouse

(A Poem by George R. Sims, 1847-1922)


It is Christmas Day in the workhouse,

And the cold, bare walls are bright

With garlands of green and holly,

And 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.


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 a’right?”

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,’

The 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.


“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.”

As a child, my family taught me some of the many parodies of 'Christmas Day in the Workhouse':


'T'was Christmas Day in the workhouse

The snow was raining fast,

Three bare-footed men with clogs on

Went slowly running past...'

And, of course,

'The pauper raised his weary head,

His face was all agha-a-arst.

He said, 'You can take your Christmas pud

And stuff it up your-- jumper.'


I thought I'd look up the original. And, okay, it's melodramatic; it's a bit purple but, given what we know about the Poor Laws and the workhouses, can it be called 'far-fetched', 'unlikely' or 'untrue'?

Today we have the Tory's Universal Credit and Food Banks. 'A jolly good thing,' according to Grease-Smugg, who will never have to use one.

Part of the Tory drive for Brexit is their slavering to be rid of all those inconvenient standards and laws that protect workers; the opportunity to withdraw support for the old, unemployed and sick -- or, in Tory-speak, people they have no further use for as they bring in more automation and cut jobs.

A look into the past gives us a glimpse of our future.

Happy Christmas! And a prosperous 2021!


Sandra Horn said…
Happy Christmas, Sue! Here's to a Tory-free time as soon as maybe!
Peter Leyland said…
That's great Sandra, a real dramatic monologue. I just read it through aloud to my wife Sue as we sat with our presents and discarded wrapping paper. Makes you think. Thanks and a happy Xmas. Things can only get better, as someone once said.
Peter Leyland said…
could get the name right Peter. Sorry Susan - a bit carried away!
Jan Needle said…
Thanks Sue. Worth repeating. And a Happy Christmas to allxxxx
Reb MacRath said…
Thanks for sharing, Sue. I wasn't familiar with that but it hits just as hard today on this side of the pond. Here's hoping for a happier 2021.
Umberto Tosi said…
Applies as well on this side of the Pond. Thanks for your outrage poem in true Dickensian fashion relevant today. Happy Christmas in spite of it all!
Eden Baylee said…
Ditto Umberto, I'm on his side of the pond too, just a bit north. :)

Stay well and hope the end of 2020 proves uneventful for good reasons.


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