Good King Wenceslaus Looked Out
To my Anglo-Canadian parents, Boxing Day—the Feast of Saint Stephen, the day after Christmas—was a day of visits, sports, and alms. A Victorian carol describes King Wenceslaus and his page trudging through the Boxing Day snow to take food and firewood to a peasant.
In Regency and Victorian England, servants and others of their class (many of whom had to work on Christmas) got the day off along with a “Christmas box” or cash tip. Here’s how two journals portrayed it:
At length the long-anticipated and wished-for day arrives . . . Many and various are the ways of soliciting a Christmas gift. The clerk, with respectful demeanor and simpering face, pays his principal the compliments of the season, and the hint is taken; the shopman solicits a holiday, in full expectation of the usual gift accompanying the consent; the beadle, dustmen, watchmen, milkmen, pot-boys, &c., all ask in plain terms for a Christmas-box, and will not easily take a refusal . . .
- “Boxing Day,” The Portfolio of Entertaining and Instructive Varieties in History, Science, Literature, the Fine Arts, Vol. VI, 1826
There is a day in December upon which, although it takes place during Christmas-time, class is set against class more than on any other day in the year. The poor rejoice in it, but the rich grumble exceedingly; the kitchen is uproarious with merriment, but the drawing-room floor, and especially ‘the study,’ where Paterfamilias sits, are shrouded in gloom.
‘Please, sir, the postman,’ exclaims our parlour-maid, in cherry-coloured ribbons, and with cherry cheeks, for the postman has probably kissed her; ‘and please, sir, the dustman’ (who, let us hope, has not ventured upon such a liberty); ‘and please, sir, the grocer’s young man has called for himself and his pardner.’
- “Lights and Shadows of London Life: Boxing-Night,” Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art, &c. &c. &c., Fourth Series, 1864
Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol after a visit to Field Lane Ragged School, which offered free classes to children “too ragged, wretched, filthy, and forlorn, to enter any other place.” Written in the last quarter of 1843 to draw attention to child poverty, Dickens’s classic sold six thousand copies by Christmas.
Founders of the Ragged School movement aimed to subdue the influences of ignorance, sin, thievery, child prostitution, and the rise of working class radicalism. They described their schools as “formed exclusively for children raggedly clothed.”
Social class remains a subtext of educational policy debates, from property-tax-based funding to university tuition and student loans. The goal of individual empowerment competes with that of creating a docile workforce, a fact well known to the American slaveholders who criminalized teaching a slave to read.
Dickens wasn’t an uncritical admirer of Ragged Schools; he found their quarters too miserable and their curriculum insufficiently secular. But he promoted their educational mission. He said in a speech in 1844, “If you would reward honesty, if you would give encouragement to good, if you would stimulate the idle, eradicate evil, or correct what is bad, education—comprehensive liberal education—is the one thing needful, and the one effective end.”
God bless us, every one!
Language Shapes Perception
Curled up in wooly beige socks and bulky yellow sweater, I was startled to find my socks and sweater almost identical in color. My artist friends would never make this mistake, but apparently I translate what I see into words (beige, yellow) and remember it accordingly. That old red rubber ball turns out to be a match for a sheet of dark orange construction paper. A friend who dislikes pink admires my “light red” shorts and “coral” shirt.
Research confirms that language shapes how we remember color and even how we see it in the moment. Believing primary colors to be universal, I marveled when my Russian instructor taught different words for light blue and dark blue. Do Russians see the world differently from me? Yes, they do. Asked which two of three rectangles looked the same, answers came most quickly from speakers of Russian when the outlier fell in a different color category. Responses were slower from English-speakers, for whom all the rectangles counted as blue, and from Russian-speakers looking at rectangles that were all light blue (or all dark).
If language affects how we see color, what other perceptions does it shape? Sound, smell, facial expression? Words blur distinctions within a category and exaggerate the divide between categories. Yet writers can’t communicate without words.
The lesson for me as a writer is not to eliminate categories but to categorize more finely. Rose, crimson, scarlet, mahogany. Acrid, fetid, noisome, putrid. Astonish, astound, amaze, flabbergast. It might not only enliven my writing but also sharpen my perception of the world around me.
Editing for Fit
Village blacksmiths and steamboat captains are no longer in high demand. Technology calls for new job skills and renders others obsolete. My first freelance editing contract applied a skill that’s fast going the way of long division: editing for fit.
Once upon a time, not so terribly long ago, physical multi-volume encyclopedias were typeset without benefit of computer. The cost of revision went up with each page that needed to be re-set. When a noteworthy event necessitated updating a page, editors tried to leave the surrounding pages untouched to limit cost. Any change on page 197 had to be offset by other adjustments for the text to flow smoothly between the existing pages 196 and 198.
A sheet of clear plastic, marked off in lines and columns, lay over the galley proof of the page under revision. Did a column run too long? What about widows and orphans, those pesky solitary lines at the top or bottom of a column, cut off from the rest of the paragraph? Did the closing sentence break at the same place as before? Fitting each page was a puzzle to solve by such tricks as substituting synonyms or shifting paragraph breaks.
Apart from physical newspapers and magazines, there’s not much call for this editing skill any more. But it holds an analogy with daily life. How can I schedule to begin and end my day at the desired time and place, with the right amount of activity between? Can I combine errands or split up social events, or swap activities of different length between one day and the next? Each 24-hour day is like a printed column with a fixed number of lines, a puzzle to edit for fit.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.