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.”
Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year!