Dickens, Coal Miners and The Spirit of Christmas

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Illus. Arthur Rackman

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Illus. Arthur Rackman

Lately, I have wondered about the life of a miner. This comes as no surprise since Putnam and Speedwell occupies a house that was once a home for a miner and his family at Eclipse Company Town. The houses are cute; but they are small, it seems to me, for a family. I wonder about life without privacy and shared beds, even though I understand that family life was different for most of history. Thinking about the holidays has fueled my curiosity. My first stop on this journey was A Christmas Carol.

The classic work by Charles Dickens still stirs emotion if not a few tears.  The meaning of life is revealed to Scrooge in a series of glimpses into the lives of other people who do not possess his great wealth but enjoy happiness surrounded by family and friends.  The miner’s camp is one of the scenes, they are gathered together enjoying the Christmas festivities. The importance of the gathering is the sense of community shared by these men who “labour in the bowels of the earth.” As Dickens wrote, “So surely as they raised their voices, the old man got quite blithe and loud; and so surely as they stopped, his vigour sank again.” The old man was sustained by the camaraderie in the coal town – as were other miners across the globe.

Garbutt Mine

Miners in Garbutt Mine, Glouster, Ohio

Many early academics and government officials missed the sense of community. Their studies stressed the squalor and poor health among the miners, while recent research and personal accounts emphasize that life in a coal camp “was not always drab” but rather “it could be fun.” (1) Elizabeth Ferguson Brown writes that, “The brightness of these homes comes from within.”(2)

Picnic Time

Picnic Time

I must admit that I had accepted the dismal portraits of coal mine towns and missed the light that comes form within. Along with Scrooge,  I recognized the generosity of spirit in the faces of miners and their families. The miner’s house that we occupy as tenants is not the same place; but, we will do our best to let the light shine – especially for the Holidays. Let the merriment begin!

 `What place is this,’ asked Scrooge. `A place where Miners live, who labour in the bowels of the earth,’ returned the Spirit. `But they know me. See.’ A light shone from the window of a hut, and swiftly they advanced towards it. Passing through the wall of mud and stone, they found a cheerful company assembled round a glowing fire. An old, old man and woman, with their children and their children’s children, and another generation beyond that, all decked out gaily in their holiday attire. The old man, in a voice that seldom rose above the howling of the wind upon the barren waste, was singing them a  Christmas song — it had been a very old song when he was a boy — and from time to time they all joined in the chorus. So surely as they raised their voices, the old man got quite blithe and loud; and so surely as they stopped, his vigour sank again.

A Christmas Carol, Stave 3: The Second of the Three Spirits

Notes:

1. Crandall A. Shifflett, Coal Towns: Life, Work, and Culture in Company Towns of Southern Appalachia (page 145)

http://books.google.com/books?id=yYRXBPACntAC&printsec=frontcover&dq=miner+camps,+appalachia,+studies+-+tight+knit&hl=en&sa=X&ei=bBx6VOewDpPjsASC-oF4&ved=0CCgQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q&f=false

2. Elizabeth Ferguson Brown, Coal Country Christmas (2003, Boyd’s Mill Press).

Read More:

http://littlecitiesofblackdiamonds.org

Photos:

http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=coal+camp%2C+glouster+ohio&go=Submit&qs=n&form=QBIR&pq=coal+camp%2C+glouster+ohio&sc=0-13&sp=-1&sk=#view=detail&id=4FDD15F2600A7CC8824B956ED6A1E9786D645DB0&selectedIndex=17