Thinking About That Old Christmas Spirit
The old man came home from work in April of 1954 ashen white. We thought he’d had a heart attack. At the dinner table he announced in his best stentorian tone, “Apex is leaving Philadelphia. The industry will be gone in ten years.” Apex Hosiery was the biggest manufacturer of stockings in the US. My father’s family had migrated from England to work the burgeoning rug mills of Philadelphia and the surrounding area. Ten years later the needle trades were dead and so was my dad.
One friend’s dad was a skilled dye master, a graduate of Philadelphia Textile Institute. He tried moving to Florida when his mill went south. That didn’t last a year before they came back. He said, “I’d rather be a school janitor than live with the mosquitoes.” And so he was, to the end of his days. Another friend’s dad serviced textile machines. Luckily he was able to retire when he ran out of work.
“Christmas Spirit” is big during this season. As a priest of the church, I know full well that the original idea was to celebrate the birth of Jesus whom Christians revere as the Christ. We got around to doing it on a more or less universal basis during the 5th century, but never mind.
Christmas Spirit is much broader. Everyone writes about it, whether in or out of the church. Editorials spring up when December comes around, touting this thing called Christmas Spirit. It seems to have two parts: harmony and generosity. The search for wellbeing and peace are at its heart. It has a place, especially at this time of year and on into January. We always hope it will last.
For me, it’s not a stretch to tie the demise of the textile industry in Philadelphia and New England to a lack of Christmas Spirit, broadly conceived, because it was the manifest greed and search for profits through ever cheaper labor that ruined not only the industries of Philadelphia, a blue-collar city of people who made stuff, but led to Detroit being the ghost town it has become, among many others in what we now call the Rust Belt. Maybe greed was on both sides; Apex claimed that worker demands had brought them to the brink of disaster and the south offered cheaper labor for them to continue.
If Christmas Spirit were alive and well, then generosity of spirit and the search for equity between owner and worker would be front and center. But it’s a joke, and you know it: we still function on the model of consumerism and when that’s the principal, corporations become faceless and simply move when the time is right to find cheaper labor. Those that don’t are unusual enough to make headlines.
Time was when local owners drank a beer with workers, when white and blue collars together formed a partnership, uneasy though it was. That spirit seems to be absent from America today. Instead we have greed as a virtue at least since the eighties, if not well before then.
People like Andrew Carnegie, for all we think badly of the so-called robber barons, re-invested many of his profits into the nation that gave a poor kid from Scotland a home. He funded libraries across America that fueled the imagination of children in small towns. He set up a fund for the common good that continues to assist local projects. Carnegie could be a model for Christmas spirit. Unfortunately we seem to lack that spirit of re-investment these days.
So I say bring it on: bring on that Christmas spirit of generosity and harmony and an overall commitment to the common weal. It’s never too late. Happy New Year.
published 6 Jan 12/Theophany