Even though January can be dark and cloudy and the weather unpredictable, it can also be breathtakingly beautiful, even in a vintage illustration!
Olive greens, browns, and deep reds remind us of robins, cardinals, holly, and evergreens, the bright spots of winter. Did you ever notice how you really see houses when they are highlighted by snow? Or how pines and spruces suddenly come into the foreground once the deciduous trees have lost their leaves?
Here, an olive-clad mysterious lady with a basket, a fur muff, and a letter, shows us that she is carrying a secret. What is so important that she must brave the cold and snow to deliver its contents? Or has she just received important news?
The crusted snow mirrors the letter. Both have crisp, white exteriors, but secrets lie beneath.
I will probably always be an Iowa girl at heart, and the soft grasses peeking from beneath the snow make my heart skip a beat.
This chirpy robin is saying something, and the vintage card would have allowed the sender to fill in her own message beneath…whatever she wanted the bird to say. Perhaps: cozy up in your nest and stay warm this winter! Or maybe she is announcing the birth of some baby birds this coming spring or perhaps a human baby.
In an old book illustration, a red-caped maiden entices a robin as it sits atop a bare branch. Gold and gray Victorian dresses, ice-covered branches, and a French garden wall frame the pretty little bird as it tries to decide if it should trust her. This illustration by L. E. Barker, found on the British Library’s collection of vintage images on flickr, is from a book of poetry published in 1853 (Poetry of the Year: Passages from the Poets).
It is almost as if this illustration is a closeup of the one above, showing us that for the robin in winter, the struggle is real! Oh, I want to bring it indoors, poor thing.
My parents feed these sweet birds all year long, but in the winter in Iowa, birdseed, shelter, and a heated birdbath are the difference between life and death. The image is by J. Hall from a book published in 1893 titled Nursery Songs.
Soft greens surround a mademoiselle leaving a church service, who has caught the eye of a gray robin. “We are the same,” they seem to be saying to each other, “with our muted pink dresses and our covered heads…we may not be as fancy as others, but we are survivors!”
The bird and the girl stand out amidst soft snow and gray skies and are surrounded by branches and a latticed window that mimic the ribboned frame. I’m not sure what the purpose of this vintage image, but it may have been a simple Christmas card or maybe a calling card for the winter: “I came by to see you.”
In this image, the beauty lies in the colors and textures of winter. Biting winds and stinging cold may make us long for spring, but we are so much more appreciative of small comforts and simple beauty.
I’m so glad images such as these continue to be available to us many years later. Happy January!
I guess I’ve always had a thing for sleuthing. When I was nine, my best friend and I formed a Mystery Club. We were convinced that Bigfoot prowled around our neighborhood at night. With notebooks in hand, we inspected the fields and tree rows near our houses and wrote down anything that looked suspicious. Once, we found a stepladder leaned up against a tree and footprints nearby. That confirmed for us that we were very close to finding him.
Many years later (not to tell my age, but Trixie Belden was my hero), I still love mysteries. While I no longer prowl around looking for physical clues, I still enjoy finding “clues” in books. Finding an author in her work or discovering what life was like in the past through the everyday experiences of characters is like finding a treasure.
New Year’s Day was last week, but was no holiday for my students at the facility where I teach. While trying to get back into a routine again after my Christmas vacation, scanning my lesson plans, loading videos that I wanted to show, and assigning books to students for the new semester, I began to think about how New Year’s was celebrated long ago. Perhaps, I thought, it was more than a ball dropping, a countdown, and a toast.
A poem for children from 1881 titled “A New Year’s Dialogue” by Marion Douglasreveals small children making resolutions on New Year’s Eve in a simple poem. Nothing about weight loss or organizing their rooms or career goals is mentioned. Rather, these are moral resolutions to be more cheerful, kinder, and more disciplined:
“The past is past; the year is new:
We will be patient, brave, and true;
When we are bidden, quick to mind;
Unselfish, courteous, and kind;
And try in every place to see
What good, good children we can be.”
We see this reiterated in L. M. Montgomery’s The Golden Road (the sequel to The Story Girl), published in 1913, when the Prince Edward Island children decide to make New Year’s Resolutions. The narrator, a boy of around 14 years old, suggests that resolutions should be “giving up wrong things or doing right things” after his brother Felix proclaims he going to stop eating apples as his resolution for the year (62).
Cousin Cecily worries incessantly that they are not being kind enough to one another on the last day of the year, and hired boy Peter promises, “I will try…to say my prayers every night regular and not twice one night because I don’t expect to have time the next…” (68).
In Elizabeth and Her German Garden (Elizabeth von Arnim), published in 1898, the very British Elizabeth, who is living in Germany with her husband, describes New Year’s Eve as having a “funeral sort of feeling in the air” as they attend a church service where the parishioners are reminded of their sins and encouraged to repent:
“The church was as cold as a tomb; some of the candles guttered and went out; the parson in his black robe spoke of death and judgment; I thought I heard a child’s voice screaming, and could hardly believe it was only the wind, and felt uneasy and full of forebodings; all my faith and philosophy deserted me, and I had a horrid feeling that I should probably be well punished, though for what I had no precise idea (157).”
It is also on New Year’s Eve that fictional Nat realizes the error of his ways and repents of spending too much money, idling away his time in superficiality, and not being focused on his music (Louisa May Alcott Jo’s Boys).
Like Elizabeth, he is in Germany at the time, and on New Year’s Day, his German landlady brings him a tray “on which st[ands] a bottle of wine and an astonishing cake bedecked with sugar-plums of every hue, and crowned with candles.” She and a neighbor both wish him not just a happy New Year’s Day, but wishes for a good year all-around (Alcott 235).
By incorporating seasons in her books, Alcott often gives us glimpses of our favorite characters in summer, fall, winter, spring, and various holidays. She again shows one of her characters repenting on New Year’s in Rose in Bloom, published in 1876. Charlie has gotten drunk after making “New Year’s calls,” which, it is implied, involved going to various friends’ houses to drink toasts.
This hearkens back to the English tradition of wassailing:
“It was an ancient Saxon custom to begin the year by sending presents to each other. On New Year’s Eve the wassail bowl of spiced ale was carried round from house to house by the village maidens, who sang songs and wished everyone “A Happy New Year” (Old English Sports by P. H. Ditchfield).
According to the book referenced above and published in 1891, the gifts may have included oranges “stuck with cloves,” custards, or tarts (basically treats). By the 1800’s, this expanded to jewelry and other presents we might expect to receive at Christmas.
In fact, the word Yule translates to “second Christmas.”
This likely explains why the college students in L. M. Montgomery’s story “Ida’s New Year Cake” are commiserating at the beginning of the story “because none of them was able to go home for New Year’s” (Lucy Maud Montgomery Short Stories 1905 to 1906):
“This will be the first New Year’s I have ever spent away from home,” sighed Sara, nibbling chocolate fudge. “It does make me so blue to think of it. And not even a holiday—I’ll have to go to work just the same” (51).
The plot revolves around Ida Mitchell, who has invited everyone over for a celebration, but finds that her fruitcake has been delivered (accidentally) to another Ida Mitchell. In trying to retrieve her lost cake, she discovers that the recipient is a lonely, poor girl whose life has been brightened by the home-baked gift. The main character hasn’t the heart to tell her namesake the truth.
In real life, Lucy Maud Montgomery did, in fact, attend a university for a time during the school year of 1895-1896 at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In her journals, she indicates that she was unable to go home for the holidays due to the weather and her grandfather’s being unwilling to meet her or return her to the station (The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery Volume I: 1889-1910: 151).
She also returned to Halifax to work for the newspaper in town as a proofreader in 1901-1902.
While the short story may not be autobiographical, LMM cleverly inserts another character, a “Miss Monroe,” who lives in the same boarding house as the college girls and is invited to attend the party. Miss Monroe is described as “a clever journalist, who worked on a paper, and was reputed to be writing a book” (52).
The author that gave us both Anne and Emily was able to show us the feelings of the introvert and the extrovert. She herself had been the popular college student, the lonely schoolteacher, the proud working girl, and the freelance writer (and all this before writing the books for which she is best known).
I end with an excerpt, recorded on New Year’s Eve, from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s journals back in 1891 when she was 17 years old:
“Thursday, Dec 31, 1891
The old year did not slip away in a green twilight and a pinky-yellow sunset. Instead, it is going out in a wild white bluster and blow. It doesn’t seem possible that another year has gone…I am cosily tucked up in bed now, sitting up to write this. It is a wild night out–one of the nights when the storm spirit hustles over the bare frozen meadows and black hollows and the wind moans around the house like a lost soul and the snow drives sharply against the shaking panes–and people like to cuddle down and count their mercies” (The Selected Journals…Volume I: 1889-1910: 71).
A Christmas menu from 1917 promises: Cream of Celery Soup; Currant Jelly; Roast Turkey with Chestnut Stuffing; Mashed Potatoes; Scalloped Onions; Tomato and Lettuce Salad with Mayonnaise; Plum Pudding; Cake; Mints; and Coffee. Christmas Pudding, whether in America, Canada, or Great Britain, completed the meal (with its raisins, real cream, and brandy).
Still, war constrained many in their feasting as sugar became a real luxury. Homemakers substituted fruit salads for cakes and sweet breads, and “Meatless Tuesday” and “Wheatless Wednesday” were encouraged. Home cooks made their pumpkin pies with molasses instead of sugar, and eggless recipes were shared in magazines and recipe booklets.
A Christmas card in 1917 may have looked something like this:
The Red Cross suggested Christmas “packets” be made and sent to our American soldiers overseas. Items recommended: writing paper, playing cards, mechanical puzzles, tobacco, chewing gum, figs, dates, hard candy, and other small items all wrapped in a khaki handkerchief that the soldier could then use. This patriotic pamphlet also suggested an “electric torch,” a fancy name for a flashlight (“The American Red Cross Woman’s Bureau”).
Gifts on the homefront were practical: toiletries, clothing, or hosiery.
According to Style: A Dry Goods Review catalog of 1917, popular toys that year included kiddie cars and tin toys such as mini warships. French, American, and Japanese dolls took the place of “banned” German dolls. No matter the gifts, Americans were encouraged to use Red Cross seals to send their Christmas cards:
Although the United States had entered the Great War that year, Great Britain, France, and Canada had been fighting since 1914. One of my favorite fictional characters, Rilla (Rilla of Ingleside), writes from the homefront in Canada:
“31 December 1917: Our fourth war Christmas is over. We are trying to gather up some courage wherewith to face another year of it” (L. M. Montgomery Rilla of Ingleside).
As for books, best sellers of 1917 included Mr. Britling Sees it Through by H. G. Wells and The Worn Doorstep by Margaret Sherwood. Both convey the experiences of World War I from the homefront in England, the latter reading as if it is nonfiction, a bit reminiscent of Elizabeth von Arnim.
H. G. Wells describes the Christmas of 1914 (through the eyes of the fictional Mr. Direck, a visiting American) as a time focused on the War, patriotism, and a general feeling of anxiety:
“Always before, Christmas had been a time of much gaiety and dressing up and prancing and two-stepping at the Dower House, but this year everything was too uncertain to allow of any gathering of guests…the Christmas tree was banned as too German, and it was discovered that Santa Claus had suddenly become Old Father Christmas again…” (Mr. Britling 280).
It seems that the American point-of-view gave Wells a chance to satirize both himself (or at least his type) and his own country. Similarly, Sherwood’s narrator views the British through the eyes of an American. Describing the lengthening days, she embraces the weather and the birds that bring her company:
“Winter is gentler here than at home, bringing at times enfolding grey mist and hours of rain; yet we have had many days of clear and sunny cold, and snow has fallen on the roof of the little red house…The English robin stays with us evidently throughout the winter; the rooks have not deserted; and we are visited daily by silver-winged gulls which come all the way from the sea for the food we put out” (The Worn Doorstep 141).
On a personal note, my family played a “game” at Christmas wherein we each were asked a personal question; then, everyone in the room shared what they thought we would say, and we revealed our own answer at the end. After we had all done, we all told where we would live if we could live anywhere in the world.
My mom spoke about old England and how the scholarly and Bible-focused universities had a feeling of home, a drawing she could not quite articulate. I think Margaret Sherwood expresses this so well in her search for a home in England, almost as though she had been in the room with us the other night:
“Everywhere, indoors and out, I am aware of forgotten chords of sympathy…In some way, by memory, by prophecy, all seems mine; the worn paths; the hollowed door-stones; the ruddy faces moving up and down the walled streets, and the quiet under the grass in the churchyard” (The Worn Doorstep 4).
Louisa May Alcott captures the feelings of Christmas like no other writer other than perhaps Dickens himself (and I think their styles are extremely compatible). Her gift for pathos, making her reader smile and laugh and cry, making us feel again as children feel, reminding us to think of others during the holidays, may have come from personal experience.
We can only imagine how L. Alcott and her sisters felt as younger children when money was very scarce in their household. I think she gives us glimpses of Christmases past in the settings and characters of her fictional stories and novels.
If, indeed, Alcott placed her own experiences in her stories, Christmases likely revolved around making garlands for the tree, putting on Christmas plays for neighbors, sledding, skating the river, cutting fresh greens, telling stories, singing, and having the family all together.
Has the writer put herself in the character Jill (Jack and Jill published 1880), a dark-haired energetic tomboy who insists on sledding down an ice-packed, dangerous hill with Jack? Perhaps Alcott said or thought these very words herself as a young girl:
“You boys think girls like little mean [average] coasts without any fun or danger in them, as if we couldn’t be brave and strong as well as you” (Jack and Jill 7).
Alcott’s fictional Rose (Eight Cousins 229) exalts in receiving both skates and a sled for Christmas and gets “rosy” cheeks trying out her gifts. After dinner, the cousins dance a Scottish “jig” in terms so convincing, I feel the real L. M. Alcott must have been at least audience to such a performance.
An Old-Fashioned Girl’s Polly, too, prefers the jolly marches and “trots” with the boys over the graceful waltzes with young men at Fanny’s party two weeks before Christmas. We can only guess that energetic Louisa May Alcott felt the same as her young protagonist.
Alcott often includes “garlands” and trees in her stories, especially those set at Christmas time. Sometimes the raw simplicity of nature gives the greatest joy, as when Sylvia, the protagonist of Moods, thrills to receive a sprig of holly from home at Christmas. It is easy to imagine this as a personal experience at one time or other in Alcott’s young life.
In another story by LMA, “A Country Christmas,” decorations involve a sort of indoor window box filled with “scarlet geraniums, Christmas roses, and white chrysanthemums” (Kitty’s Class Day and Other Stories). Again, it is roses and chrysanthemums that appear in Little Women. Might these have been the same kinds of flowers that seemed to be the Alcotts’ only enjoyment for Christmas in 1860?
“A quiet Christmas; no presents but apples and flowers. No merry-making; for Nan and May were gone, and Betty under the snow. But we are used to hard times, and, as Mother says, ‘while there is a famine in Kansas we mustn’t ask for sugar-plums'” (Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals 1889).
The setting seems more symbolic in the picture the Christmas spirit shows Effie in “A Christmas Dream and How it Came True”:
“Bells were ringing so merrily it was hard to keep from dancing. Green garlands hung on the walls, and every tree was a Christmas tree full of toys, and blazing with candles that never went out” (Lulu’s Library).
The above story is one that Alcott offered as a Christmas gift to the children who so loved her stories and were always begging for more from the busy writer. Later in the story, Effie gives out gifts to poor children, and we can almost taste the treats of Christmas: “wreaths of popcorn, apples, oranges, horns of candy, and cakes of all sorts, from sugary hearts to gingerbread…”.
Like Dickens, many of Alcott’s Christmas plots revolve around poor and even destitute characters who cannot afford to celebrate Christmas in any sort of monetary way. These are usually children or teenagers, and Alcott captures the feelings of a child who feels left out while the others around her have a more middle-class experience.
Older sister Tessa longs to give her younger brothers and sisters a happy Christmas (Alcott “Tessa’s Surprises”). With a “heavy heart,” the motherless child is quite aware that all of her “father’s earnings had to go for food, fire, and rent.” Here we see the independent and self-reliant spirit of Alcott’s Transcendentalist background come into play as the girl hatches a plan to earn some money by singing for pennies. Tessa gives all she has to buy simple gifts of shoes, caps, and mittens for her siblings’ stockings. How often Alcott felt both the lack and the satisfaction of providing something for her family through work and God’s provision is conveyed in these simple stories for children.
At the end of the story, a Christmas play is devised by one of the families for which Tessa sings. In real life, older sister Anna describes the Alcott sisters producing their own adaptation of a Dickens’ story in 1850. This idea of producing and acting in plays shows up in several stories, as the characters rummage through old dresses and cast-offs in attics for “costumes.”
Play-acting seems to have been a popular form of entertainment in many cultures during the 19th century. It is not so far-fetched, for how many families in our modern society watch movies at Christmas time? Through another form of storytelling, Lou’s gifts were richly used to entertain family, friends, and neighbors long before she became the famous writer Louisa May Alcott. Thanks to Anna Alcott Pratt (the real-life “Meg), a book of their plays is anthologized in Comic Tragedies (1893).
Louisa May Alcott helped us to see the longings of children at Christmas time, the sweetness of simple joys, and the blessings that can be found in even a “quiet Christmas.”
Illustrator Frances Brundage wishes us a Merry Christmas in 1910:
If you could caption this postcard, what would you call it?
Louisa May Alcott was no longer alive when Brundage began to illustrate re-printings of Alcott’s beloved novels (the above drawing is not connected). I’m not sure the sweet-faced cherubs drawn by this idealistic, albeit extremely talented, artist would have attracted LMA’s attention had she been alive. I sense she may have looked for a sense of humor over a sense of nostalgia.
Alcott most likely expressed her own experiences in several of her stories in which children do not anticipate any “extras” for the most wonderful day of the year, as in the opening line of her most famous novel:
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents…” (Little Women)
For a little girl at that time, a pretty dolly was the most coveted of toys. Somehow, I picture Alcott rather wishing for books, pens, journals, a pair of skates, or a bright toboggan rather than a doll!
The Coming of Father Christmas
In the next illustration, an English Christmas is celebrated by a “merry troop” in “The Coming of Father Christmas,” written by Eliza F. Manning and published in 1894 in London:
In this narrative poem, Father Christmas asks some children to come with him to bring some orphans from the inner city and be their “playmates” for the day. In the illustration, we see the various social backgrounds of the children all feasting together. Notice the piles of oranges and puddings on the table (ah, it brings to mind Dickens himself).
Then, Father Christmas distributes the gifts:
“Here’s my basket full of treasures…tops and goodies, marbles, dolls. Climbing monkeys. Pretty Polls; A Jack-in-the-box, and picture books too, Old Mother Hubbard, and Little Boy Blue.”
Finally, he reads the Christmas story as the children listen near the dying fire of evening, the Christ child the true lauded one of the day. Here, you may access the The Coming of Father Christmas. It is worth a read for its stunning illustrations.
“I Will Honor Christmas in My Heart and Try to Keep it All the Year”
Another British illustrator, Arthur Rackham uses humor to depict scenes in a version of A Christmas Carol published in 1915 by Lippincott. I love the way both Dickens and Rackham give us a glimpse of the games once played at celebrations in the 1800’s.
In the scene at Fred’s Christmas party (one Scrooge was invited to attend), Topper chases after a pretty girl as they play “Blind Man’s B[l]uff.” He and Fred have conspired so that Topper can see the girl and always seems to go where she goes. Of course, he catches her, she pretends not to like it, and the two disappear together! (p 102)
I rather fancy that Alcott would have liked the humor and sharpness Rackham put into his “sketches.” He was known for his fairy and fantasy illustrations (as was Alcott as a writer).
Perhaps it is John Leech who visually gave us the Scrooge we all know and love in his illustrations of the very first edition of A Christmas Carol published by Chapman & Hall in 1843. Here, we see Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present:
It is exactly as Dickens describes (except perhaps for Scrooge’s age), showing that this illustrator greatly understands the humor and irony of every detail. Here, a scrawny, childish old man in a ridiculous night-dress contrasts with the high-spirited, muscular Spirit of Christmas Present (even that name makes me smile).
Though his faces weren’t detailed, Leech gave us the true expressions of pity, joy, fear, despair, and compassion that challenge us all to “honor Christmas” in our hearts and try to “keep it all the year!”
Now, I leave you with another postcard, this time of a boy since I teach all boys, and we are nearing the end of the semester. Perhaps this year, we will get enough snow to build one of these:
In October 2017, two of my grandparents weren’t born yet. The others were children. My great-grandparents were still very young…at least four of them were still in high school.
So much was happening in the world. World War I was raging, and America had only entered it about six months earlier. My Grandpa Great fought in this war at only 18 years old. I remember him singing, “It’s a long way to Tipperary. It’s a long way to go…” as his thoughts seemed to go back to this time in his life.
Meanwhile, in Russia, a revolution was taking place that would change the world, and not for the better, in my opinion. My sophomore class is reading Animal Farm, and it struck me that these events are now one hundred years old. How different it would all have been if only the provisional government had had a little forethought!
Here are some other highlights from 100 years ago:
Billie Burke, who would later play Glinda the good witch in The Wizard of Oz, was featured in the magazine Photoplay, having recently married Flo Ziegfield. Here she is in a feature story in October 1917:
The Chicago White Sox beat the New York Giants in the seven-game World Series of 1917. Here is a link to clips, or what we used to call footage, of the first game:
How formally everyone dressed, with umpires, coaches, and even spectators in suits, vests, and ties! Though not as lean or as in shape as today’s players, these early all-stars sure did have some raw talent.
Some classic books were published during this time, as well. I think if I had to choose my favorite Anne book, it would be this one published in 1917:
In chapter ten, Anne visits the shore on a cool October evening:
“There had been an autumn storm of wind and rain, lasting for three days. Thunderous had been the crash of billows on the rocks, wild the white spray and spume that flew over the bar, troubled and misty and tempest-torn…now it was over, and the shore lay clean-washed after the storm…” (Montgomery 93-94)
She has a way of putting images and words together to express how I feel. This post is woefully late, but I am publishing it anyway!
The Brontë sisters were a trio of isolated, socially awkward Victorian-era authors, known as well for their feminist works as for their obsession with violence and destruction. And almost two-hundred years later, a community of near-neurotic Brontë fans lives on. So what's up with this Brontëmania?