Louisa May Alcott’s Christmas Stories – “Bertie’s Box” in real life

I just picked up an e-book of Christmas stories by Louisa May Alcott from Barnes & Noble called Christmas Tales and Stories (have to love e-books for the convenience, especially since I wanted to start reading right away).

“Bertie’s Box” – setting up the story

It includes an introduction by the editor, Laura Ciolkowski. She begins with the following journal entry from Louisa which leads perfectly into the first story:

“A poor woman in Ill. writes me to send her children some Xmas gifts, being too poor & ill to get any. They asked her to write to Santa Claus & she wrote to me. Sent a box & made a story about it. $100.” (1881)

Ciolkowski writes, “this anecdote of a famous author and a poor woman’s Christmas wish became the kernel of the story, “Bertie’s Box,” first published in 1884 in the January issue of Harper’s Young People.”

Running themes

She maintains that this and other stories “embod[y] the literay and personal themes that consistently commanded Alcott’s attention and that invariably found their way into her holiday fiction: rising and falling fortunes; the moral obligation of hard work and honest labor; sympathy for others and a ‘practical Christianity’ that was linked not to institutionalized religion or to material wealth, but to a willingness to help those in need.”

Dickensian influences . . .

Charles Dickens’ classic  A Christmas Carol opened up a market for Christmas stories which years later, the ever-practical Louisa was happy to fill (at an average price of $100 per story, I can see why!). An avid admirer of  Dickens (she often memorized whole chapters of his books), she shared with him his keen sense of the marketplace.

 . . . and family influences

Ciolkowski suggests that Bronson’s total lack of sense and persistent “idleness” fueled Louisa’s own abilities as a hard-headed business woman. Her mother’s example of “practical Christianity” certainly figured in as well.

On to the story . . .

“Bertie’s Box,” based upon that request from the poor woman, reflected an incident in my life which I’ll relate in a moment.

In the story, Mrs. Field, who heads a charitable organization, receives a letter from a Mrs. Adams, requesting gifts for her children as she was without a husband, was poor, and was ill. Mrs. Field’s’ son Bertie got right into the spirit of the request, pulling together the “bestest of the best” as his mother had taught him, and assembled them into a box. The box was sent to Mrs. Adams who was able to supply her Johnny, Jimmy and Baby with a glorious Christmas, uplifted by hope and love.

My favorite line in the story describes how Mrs. Adams felt after she had laid out the gifts she received on Christmas Eve night as her children slept: “when her lamp went out after an hour of real Christmas work and a touching letter to Mrs. Field, she crept to bed with Baby cuddled close to a glad and grateful heart.”

A modern day “Bertie’s Box” tale

I remembered four grateful hearts several years ago when my children were 12 and 9. Back then money was tight. We lived in a small condo at the time and I had finished all the Christmas shopping and stored the gifts in the basement locker of our building, mainly to keep them from prying eyes.

To my horror, a week before Christmas, someone broke open the lock and stole all the Christmas presents! I despaired, not knowing how everything could be replaced.

But I shouldn’t have.

My children had obviously told friends about what had happened and within days, the schools responded. Meredith went to a small Catholic school and the classes took up a collection and gave us a very generous donation.

Stephen’s teacher instructed all the students to each buy a gift to give to Stephen that he could open Christmas morning under the tree.

“Bertie’s Box” reminded me in a rush of the deep gratitude we all felt at the generosity of others on our behalf. And like Mrs. Adams, no material gift could ever match the knowledge of being loved by so many.

I always sing “O Holy Night” on Christmas morning at my church. You can imagine how much that song meant to me that particular year!
p.s. you can listen to my rendition of “O Holy Night” here (my husband is playing the guitar):

These values never go out of style and never should. That’s what Christmas is truly about and this is why Louisa’s work is timeless.

Do you have a “Bertie’s Box” tale?

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8 Replies to “Louisa May Alcott’s Christmas Stories – “Bertie’s Box” in real life”

  1. I really want to read some of Louisa May Alcott’s Christmas stories with Mom next year. (We’re reading Dickens aloud through all of December.) One of my favorite memories as a kid was a Bertie’s box kind of story, too. Someone at church made a request for gifts for her children, and my family went on a hunt for things we could offer to give the children a Merry Christmas. It taught me the spirit of giving and is a beautiful memory.

    Lovely singing! My mom signs that one for the holidays sometimes too. I’ve never sung it in front of anyone, but I do sing it in private. 😉

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