A present to yourself: Louisa May Alcott’s Christmas stories

To paraphrase a famous line,
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any stories!”
Louisa’s stories, that is.

In honor of this magical season, here are all the posts I’ve done on Louisa’s Christmas stories.

Even though work on my research has precluded reading for pleasure for now (not to say that my work isn’t immensely enjoyable),
I will definitely indulge in some Alcott Christmas stories
as a Christmas present to myself.

Here is an update that I just posted on my Lizzie book.

red purse

“The Little Red Purse”

working boy

“A Christmas Turkey, and How It Came”

 “A Christmas Dream and How It Came True”

“Little Robin”

“Bertie’s Box”








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Yet another big announcement, and you can be a part of it!

I’ve been sitting on some pretty exciting news.

Along with the release of River of Grace this October, I also have another book in the works, commissioned by a different publisher. And this one is all about Louisa May Alcott! The book will be launched in January of 2016.

louisa cover

The publisher is ACTA; this book is part of a series known as the Literary Portals to Prayer. The idea is to feature passages from the classics and pair them with bible verses which will then stimulate prayer and meditation. The bible verses come from a modern translation of the bible known as The Message. Authors such as Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, William Shakespeare, Hans Christian Anderson, Jane Austen and Elizabeth McGaskell will be featured, along with Louisa May Alcott.

The invitation to write this book came directly as a result of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion. YOU made this possible and I am so grateful.

I am presently combing through Louisa May Alcott’s books and journals to find the perfect fifty passages to complete my volume in this series.

And this is where you come in.

Many of you know Louisa’s canon far better than I do. I am making inroads but we all know how prolific Louisa was!

I could really use your help!

I would eagerly welcome your suggestions on passages for use in the Louisa May Alcott Literary Portal to Prayer.

Please post your suggestion through your comment, or send me an email at louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com with your passage(s).

If I use your passage, I will credit and thank you by name in the introduction I will write for the book!

The rules are simple:

  • The passage must contain between 73 and 275 words; poetry is definitely welcome and cannot exceed 30 lines.
  • The passage must contain some kind of spiritual theme, i.e. love of God, welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, personal growth, a personal revelation, etc. The religious nature of the passage does not have to be overt; we want the passage to stimulate thought and inspire ponderance.
  • Cite the the name of the work and chapter number and name, and cut and paste the passage into your comment or email.
  • Deadline for submission is Monday, August 31. Post your passage(s) through your comment, or send me an email at louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com with your passage(s).
  • First come, first serve. If duplicate passages are suggested, the first person who suggests it will be the owner of that passage.

I would particularly welcome passages from Louisa’s short stories from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, Lulu’s Library, other compilations, or any stories published in St. Nicholas magazine. I don’t have the time to go through all of her short stories but should it be a specialty of yours, I would welcome your submissions.

Thinking about reading this weekend or over your vacation? Find some passages and send them along. I am eager to see your suggestions!

Please share this around with your friends on Facebook and Twitter:

All submissions are welcome. Cut and paste this into your Facebook page or click to tweet & share:

Know of a quote from #LouisaMayAlcott relating to spirituality? Help out @susanbailey and be part of a new book. http://wp.me/p125Rp-1T1

And thank you again for your support of this blog which has resulted in this opportunity.

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Merry Christmas from Louisa May Alcott is My Passion!

For your Christmas reading enjoyment, here is a link to all the posts I’ve done on Louisa’s Christmas stories.

And of course, you can always turn to Little Womenhere is a wonderful (and free) dramatic reading to carry you away.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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A Louisa May Alcott Christmas: “The Little Red Purse”

From the Christmas Tales and Stories collection (Laura Ciolkowski, editor) comes a sweet, albeit typical offering from Louisa May Alcott known as “The Little Red Purse.”

red purse

Even though the essence of the story is very familiar (rich little girl learns how good it is to give to the poor), Louisa always manages to insert something that raises the story above the mundane.

The burning question

My first thought going into the story was, “How long will it be before Lu, the little girl who owns the little red purse, either loses it, ruins it, or gives it away?” You’ll have to read the story to find out if that happens or not. It kept me guessing right up to the last minute.

Lu’s weaknesses

Lu is ten and loves candy. She receives an allowance each week and often spends it on candy and usually makes herself sick. But she has another “weakness” besides love of candy: she is softhearted.

Easy come, easy go

After filling her brand new purse with coins, she set out with her Aunty to the store to buy the candy and wound up giving away nearly every cent to people along the way who were in need. In the end she just had a few pennies and bought one piece of candy. However, just as she was going to enjoy it, a stray dog came and snatched it away! It was nice to see that Lu, rather than crying over the loss like a spoiled child, found the whole thing quite amusing along with her Aunty.

Building a Christmas fund

At the crux of the story is a poor beggar girl Lucy, who comes to the family home in the pouring rain asking for food for her family. Lu takes Lucy to heart and vows to earn and save every penny towards a Christmas fund so that Lucy, her little sister Totty and their mother can have a nice Christmas.

Lu is not a perfect little angel: every now and then she falls prey to her love of candy. But in the end, she saves up a nice stash and surprises Lucy and her family with toys, candies and clothes for Christmas.

Grandfather and granddaughter

It is after this point that the story begins to speak to me. Lu’s grandfather, an invalid, has been secretly stashing coins into the little red purse so that Lu could have a bigger Christmas fund. The exchange between grandfather and granddaughter is poignant teaching the little girl how to give in a manner that is truly long lasting.

Reform has a face and a name

Louisa, ever in the spirit of reform, doesn’t make charity simply a matter of Christmas presents or giving away money. It’s personal. And this comes directly from her own mother whose crusade for the poor was not for masses, but for every poor individual. To Abba, every poor person had a name and a story. Louisa embodies this spirit and inserts it into so many of her juvenile stories. It’s oftentimes what raises the story a notch up from just being another moralistic tale.

No wonder Louisa always puts me in the Christmas spirit!

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A Louisa May Alcott Christmas: “A Christmas Turkey, and How It Came”

christmas tales and storiesFrom the Barnes and Noble collection of Christmas stories by Louisa May Alcott called Christmas Tales and Stories (edited by Laura Ciolkowsk) comes a sweet tale with a lot of fodder between the lines for those of us well-acquainted with the life of Miss Alcott.

“A Christmas Turkey, and How It Came”

The premise is familiar: a poor family trying to figure out how they can celebrate Christmas. Normally one or both of the parents have died but in this case, both parents are present. And here’s where it gets interesting.

Parallels: father to Father

The children (Kitty, Tom, Sammy, Dilly and Dot) are sad when they speak of their father

“for all knew that father’s headaches always began by his coming home stupid or cross, with only a part of his wages; and mother always cried when she thought they did not see her, and after the long sleep father looked as if he didn’t like to meet their eyes, but went off early.

They knew what it meant, but never spoke of it–only pondered over it, and mourned with mother at the change which was slowly altering their kind industrious father into a moody man, and mother into an anxious over-worked woman.”

drunkNote that Louisa does not mention the trouble (though it doesn’t much to figure it out, and she does reveal at the end of the story what the trouble was) which to me, makes this all the more pointed.

Is Louisa hinting at a condition her own father suffered?

Granted, I am coming off of reading Madelon Bedell’s outstanding The Alcotts: Biography of a Family in which the author spends a great deal of time describing various episodes in Bronson’s life where he teetered to the point of insanity. The two most prominent incidents were just after Fruitlands and shortly after leaving Hillside for Boston. In each case the description that Louisa paints in the story of the father is not that far off course (naturally it is generalized–the father in the story didn’t suffer from hallucinations and mystic experiences). We can recognize Abba’s response in the mother.

I admit to being more sensitive than usual about spotting this kind of connection but it is quite fascinating.

The power of the story to work through difficult times

transcendental wild oatsLouisa’s powers of observation are well-known but there is no direct mention of either episode in her journals, at least mentions that survive. Instead they come out as “A Christmas Turkey, and How It Came,” Transcendental Wild Oats and probably other stories as well.

Inspiring themes

Kitty, the oldest sister, is the Louisa counterpart: capable, industrious, resourceful, and intent on making enough money with her siblings to guarantee a turkey on the table for Christmas since her father could not provide. It’s a common Alcott theme but it never grows tired. It is always inspiring to see stories of young people putting their minds to hard work and creative thinking to solve problems (so long as they don’t get exploited, which of course, was a major problem in the 19th century).

No incrimination

There is, of course, the usual pathos, especially in Kitty’s case, going home after a long day, coming up short with her portion, and happening upon a gay children’s Christmas party in a beautiful home. Yet Louisa does not paint the wealthy as villains but rather as generous patrons, giving freely without condescension.

Feminist themes

silver dollarThe feminist Louisa pops up with this declaration from Kitty: “Girls never can earn as much money as boys somehow,” only to be countered by younger brother Sammy: “I’ll give you some of my money if you don’t get a dollar; then we’ll be even, Men always take care of women, you know, and ought to.” To this reader there is more of a sense of partnership rather than deliberate domination on the part of Sammy–a very simple illustration of the type of marriage Louisa would imagine for herself if the right man existed: a marriage of equals.

Even Sammy’s charge of the babies Dilly and Dot while Kitty goes out to sell her wares (handmade wreaths) hints at a future of equality.

Enjoyable story

At least that’s what I saw. I enjoyed “A Christmas Turkey, and How It Came;” it had a natural feel about it despite the moralizing (which I happen to enjoy). Louisa’s writing did not dictate the moral lessons she sought to get across but instead illustrated how those lessons could be learned. Having recently read some of Lydia Maria Child’s didactic tales, there is a certain freshness in Louisa’s approach, especially in the dialog between the children.

Have you read “A Christmas Turkey, and How It Came”? What did you think? What did you see?

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Rewriting “A Christmas Carol” for children: “A Christmas Dream and How It Came True”

I came across an article on Scotsman.com about why we so often associate Charles Dickens with Christmas  (see The father of Christmas: What the festive season owes to Charles Dickens) and it really opened my eyes.

The influence of Charles Dickens

Despite that fact that I have read so little of Dickens, I could still feel his influence on Louisa’s Christmas stories (although hers are shorter and sweeter than his – I understand he got paid by the word :-)). Among other things, it made me realize that I must expand my reading horizons so as to understand where Louisa’s influences came from.

Learning to appreciate Dickens

I actually read (or heard through an audio book) A Christmas Carol for the first time yesterday. At first I was put off by the endless description as it seemed I could have said in five words what he said in fifty (and I am certainly not pithy!). I felt myself getting impatient, wanting him to stop beating around the bush and get to the point!

But by the time the third ghost appeared, I was among the initiated. I began to love the way everyone except Scrooge knew the obvious fact that he was the dead man. The suspense kept building along with Scrooge’s horror so that when he repented of his sins, it was heartfelt and authentic.

I’ve started listening to The Chimes and will also take on The Cricket in the Hearth. I love Google Books!

Rewriting Dickens for children

The article I eluded to at the beginning of this post mentioned that Louisa’s “A Christmas Dream and How It  Came True” was A Christmas Carol rewritten for children.

But rather than a misery and miserable old man, we have a very spoiled and miserable little girl, Effie. She had everything and was bored with it all.

She announced to her mother that she was “tired of Christmas”:

” . . . it [Christmas] is always the same, and there isn’t any more surprise about it. I always find heaps of goodies in my stocking. Don’t like some of them, and soon get tired of those I do like. We always have a great dinner, and I eat too much, and feel ill next day. Then there is a Christmas tree somewhere, with a doll on top, or a stupid old Santa Claus, and children dancing and screaming over bonbons and toys that break, and shiny things that are of no use. Really, mamma, I’ve had so many Christmases all alike that I don’t think I can bear another one.”

Effie wished she could be instead a beggar-girl. It made me cringe.

Scrooge’s story spawns a dream

At her mother’s suggestion, Effie found a copy of A Christmas Carol and read it before bedtime. In a way she couldn’t articulate, it made her feel better. And it fueled a long dream that “she never quite forgot.”

She realized a wish in her dream, that of becoming a beggar-girl: cold, hungry, wet, and feeling quite desperate.

A Christmas Spirit

While Scrooge had a vision of the 3 Spirits of Christmas; Effie was visited by one of many:

“A child’s voice sang, a child’s hand carried the little candle; and in the circle of soft light it shed, Effie saw a pretty child coming to her through the night and snow. A rosy, smiling creature, wrapped in white fur, with a wreath of green and scarlet holly on its shining hair, the magic candle in one hand, and the other outstretched as if to shower gifts and warmly press all other hands.”

The world of Christmas

The Spirit gave comfort to Effie and showed her the world of Christmas – many Spirits, old and young, working hard to create Christmas magic for the poor in the world. Louisa’s ever-fruitful imagination spun a world of wonder – she never lost sight of the child within herself despite all the hardship she lived through.

Effie even saw 4 Santa Clauses! (Were these the “Santa’s helpers” that I was always told about when I was a child? After all, how could Santa be at the North Pole and in my favorite department store at the same time? :-))

But that was only part of the story – the best was yet to come.

The Spirit then showed Effie how the all the wondrous things made in the world of Christmas was distributed throughout the world to deserving children everywhere. She saw how the poor children especially responded to such kindness and longed to give as the Christmas Spirits gave.

Becoming the Spirit of Christmas

Upon awakening, she told her mother all about her dream, and her mother made it come true. Effie became that Spirit of Christmas, dressed just like the Spirit in her dream, distributing Christmas magic to poor girls in a nearby orphanage.

Never again would Effie declare that she was “tired of Christmas!”

I loved the sweet and imaginative way that Louisa borrowed from the Dickens classic to create a story that would charm children into taking care of those less fortunate than themselves.

And I love the way that each story I read wraps me in the comfort of Christmases past while gently pricking my conscience here in the present to care more for those around me who are less fortunate.

I’ve never spent a Christmas before with Louisa May Alcott; it’s a Christmas I won’t soon forget.

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“What the Bells Saw and Said” – Louisa May Alcott’s State of the Union Address

If Louisa May Alcott were to deliver a State of the Union address (minus the politics), what would it be like?

You can find out by reading “What the Bells Saw and Said,” in Christmas Tales and Stories, edited by Laura Ciolkowski.

Portrayed through the reports of six spirits living in the bells of the local church steeple, Louisa’s State of the Union address is at times preachy, heavy-handed, starkly realistic and yet tinged with that hope that never seemed to die within her no matter the circumstances.

While I haven’t read a lot of Charles Dickens (just A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations), I certainly felt his influence in this story.

The bells report on the past year

The scene opens with 6 bells in a church steeple: “No one saw the spirits of the bells up there in the old steeple at midnight on Christmas Eve. Six quaint figures, each wrapped in a shadowy cloak and wearing a bell-shaped cap. All were gray-headed, for they were among the oldest bell-spirits of the city, and ‘the light of other days’ shone in their thoughtful eyes.”

Each bell was to give his report on how the now-ending year had played out.

The ways of commerce – nothing ever changes . . .

The first bell-spirit reported on the ways of commerce. In many ways the characterizations echoed what is being said today about the business world. Louisa paints with a broad brush but at least admits that this portrait doesn’t apply to all businesspeople:

“There’s a deal too much dishonesty in the world, and business seems to have become a game of hazard in which luck, not labor, wins the prize. When I was young, men were years making moderate fortunes, and were satisfied with them . . .  Now it’s anything for money; health, happiness, honor, life itself, are flung down on that great gaming-table, and they forget everything else in the excitement of success or the desperation of defeat. Nobody seems satisfied either, for those who win have little time or taste to enjoy their prosperity . . . now-a-days after all manner of dishonorable shifts there comes a grand crash; many suffer, but by some hocus-pocus the merchant saves enough to retire upon and live comfortably here or abroad. It’s very evident that honor and honesty don’t mean now what they used to mean  . . .”

Extravagance and poverty

There is lamentation about the “show” of religion and how little of the message of Christianity actually sinks into the average mindset. Through the second bell-spirit Louisa turns to a familiar theme, that of extravagant living and the lack of care of the poor (think An Old-Fashioned Girl). Still, the second bell-spirit ends his report on an upbeat note, lavishing praise on the minority who do take their faith to heart and live it well.

Putting a face to that poverty

Hammershøi Portrait of a Young Girl 1885

The third bell-spirit echoes the lamentations of the second, augmenting them with a poignant story that does not end happily.

He tells the account of a poor young girl struggling to get by:

“Down yonder in the garret of one of the squalid houses at the foot of my tower, a little girl has lived for a year, fighting silently and single-handed a good fight against poverty and sin. I saw her when she first came, a hopeful, cheerful, brave-hearted little soul, alone, yet not afraid. She used to sit all day sewing at her window, and her lamp burnt far into the night, for she was very poor, and all she earned would barely give her food and shelter. I watched her feed the doves, who seemed to be her only friends; she never forgot them, and daily gave them the few crumbs that fell from her meagre table. But there was no kind hand to feed and foster the little human dove, and so she starved . . .”

I kept thinking that someone would step in and save this girl from her fate, but it was not to be. I had grown accustomed to Louisa’s sugar-coating in the other Christmas stories in this series; I was finding this one to be jarring.

Yet Louisa never gives in to despair. The bell-spirit ends his sobering tale with hope, believing that the girl was welcomed into paradise by her Father-God.

Other reports

Things began to lighten up after that. The fourth bell-spirit went on to report about the seaport in town and how the sailors were making out, guided by the earnest, hardworking captain who kept them in line.

Louisa gave a sense that the constant hard work mixed with the danger in seafaring kept the lives of these sailors authentic and true. There was certainly no opportunity for the wasting away of body, mind and heart that came from the extravagance and sloth she so disdained.

Back to religion

The report goes back to religion with an amusing summary of the various faiths through their various bells:

“The Baptist bell cried, briskly, ‘Come up and be dipped! come up and be dipped!’ The Episcopal bell slowly said, ‘Apos-tol-ic suc-cess-ion! apos-tol-ic suc-cess-ion!’ The Orthodox bell solemnly pronounced, ‘Eternal damnation! eternal damnation!’ and the Methodist shouted, invitingly, ‘Room for all! room for all!'”

The fifth bell-spirit devoted his time to a lengthy description of the growth of the congregation in the Catholic cathedral (and the decline in the neighboring Protestant churches). Louisa was at best ambivalent about Catholicism yet she gave a fair and favorable account.

Louisa’s powers of observation continue to amaze me; she described so well things she didn’t necessarily experienced first-hand.

The state of the young

The sixth bell-spirit turned his attention to the young regarding their education and specifically, the state of literature.. Though not as vigorous as he would like, the bell-spirit was generally pleased regarding the reform in literature noting that  “a sharp attack of mental and moral dyspepsia will soon teach our people that French confectionery and the bad pastry of Wood, Bracdon, Yates & Co. is not the best diet for the rising generation.” (Note: editor Laura Ciolkowski cited this comment as “disingenuous” considering the fact that such potboilers had been Louisa’s bread and butter!)

The dawning of Christmas Day

Dawn’s first light brings the report to a close with a hopeful note about the state of religion, its relevance and its revival. Through the sixth bell-spirit Louisa writes, “truth always triumphs in the end, and whoever sincerely believes, works and waits for it, by whatever name he calls it, will surely find his own faith blessed to him in proportion to his charity for the faith of others.”

I will think of this lyric and the image of these spirits the next time I hear the bells ringing:

” ‘Ring out the old, ring in the new,
  Ring out the false, ring in the true;
  Ring in the valiant man and free,
  Ring in the Christ that is to be.’

Then hand in hand the spirits of the bells floated away, singing in the hush of dawn the sweet song the stars sung over Bethlehem,–“Peace on earth, good will to men.”

The real intent?

“What the Bells Saw and Said” was commentary mixed with sometimes brutally honest observation – a window into the heart and mind of a reformer. It was sobering, making me think and pricking my conscience: what was I doing to make the world around me a better place?

I suspect that’s the reaction Louisa was looking for.

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