From ‘A Night Before Christmas and Other Stories for Children’, WB Conkey Company, Chicago, 1903 (available here in full on Project Gutenberg):-
“On Christmas day there is a great feast in Dublin… The feast is made for the children. There are in that city a great many little ones who are very very poor. There are kind people there, also, who look after these poor children. They have what they call “ragged schools,” where many of them are taught to read, and to sew, and other useful things.
Dr. Nelaton is a famous minister in Dublin, and every year he, with other good people, gets up this great feast for the children. About eight hundred of them came last year. Some of these were only half-clad, and all were very ragged. They were seated at long, narrow tables, which were covered with a white cloth. The children from the ragged schools wore aprons in bright colors, to hide their rags. Each school had a color of its own. These aprons were only lent them for the day, and the children felt very fine in them. But there were two long rows without any aprons. These were little ones who had been picked up along the streets. Each ragged scholar had permission to bring all the children he could find. And, oh, how ragged and dirty these two rows were!
But they brightened up, just like the children with aprons, when they saw the feast. A huge mug of steaming tea and an immense bun to each child! Rarely did they have such a treat as this. And how they did eat! Each child had all he wanted. It would have done you good to see their poor, pinched faces beam with delight. During the meal a large throng of orphan children in the gallery sung some sweet songs. Then, after the feast, there were small gifts, and little speeches and prayers, and more songs.
The little ragged ones seemed like new beings in this atmosphere of love. Such a glad day as that Christmas was a rare event in their sad lives. Children who live in happy homes know little about the sufferings of the poor. Perhaps, if they knew more, such little ones would try harder, by gifts and kind acts, to carry sunshine to sorrowful hearts.”
A bit sugary, even by my standards, but I hope no more so than the ‘immense’ buns distributed to the kiddies. Sunshine to sorrowful hearts’ is all very well but you can’t live on it, can you? Is it worse to take the children in, give them a happy evening, and then send them back out onto the streets, than not to bother with them at all? Probably not. Hope and the promise of something better may not be sufficient to survive, but in a cold hard world it is certainly necessary.
The question of course is the payment eked out by the benefactors. Kindness rarely comes without something expected in return, even if it is only loyalty and gratitude. You can’t buy other people and sometimes, in trying to do so, they can end up owning you. If you want to give safely you have to do so without hope or expectation of recognition or reward; only then can you remain free from the temptation to try harder, to justify your investment; only then can you retain the choice to walk away.
I’m sure the men and women helping out at that feast felt rather pleased with themselves that night, thinking of how dreamily saintish they must have appeared to the poor little children; in reality the poor little children, back on the streets, were probably thinking how damned cold it was, where their next meal was to come from and how smart they’d been to manage to swipe an extra bun or two and maybe a few shillings when their benefactors’ backs were turned. Survival, unlike munificence, leaves no room for sentimentality, and any child of the streets still alive in a chilly Dublin midwinter to attend the Ragged Christmas Feast must have been, by definition, a survivor.
I hadn’t heard of the Ragged Schools before I read this piece. They originated in England; as far as Dublin was concerned, there were both Protestant and Catholic Ragged Schools; you can read more about the Protestant ones (to which this story seems to relate) here. I haven’t been able to find out anything else about the Christmas Feast. Quite likely it did take place. As regards its organiser, I haven’t been able to find any reference to a clergyman by the name of Nelaton, either in google books or the Irish Times archives. Of course that doesn’t mean he didn’t exist.
Child poverty in Dublin tenements c. 1903, on the other hand, did exist, very much so, to the extent that foreign visitors to Dublin saw fit to remark on it at length. Hopefully things are a bit better today for the descendants of those who managed to survive…