This is the final post in my “Very Literary Christmas” series, for this year at least. We began in Jane Austen’s England, exploring how Christmas was celebrated, and then we took a trip to the wild landscapes of Russia – a land of tundra, wolves, mountains and forests.
Last, but not least, we’ll drop by the March sisters in 19th century America. Little Women has to be one of the quintessential Christmas books. It opens with that well-known line, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug“, and Christmas scenes play a large part in the novel.
After the opening scene, we see the March sisters planning what to buy their ‘Marmee’ for Christmas. On Christmas morning, although they had woken up to a festive breakfast, they generously gave it away to a poor woman with hungry children.
If you would like to re-create the Little Women breakfast for yourself on Christmas morning, I found this post: Mrs Gore’s Diary ~ A “Little Women” Breakfast.
Although they gave their breakfast to the Hummels, on Christmas night the girls were treated to a delicious supper after they had all acted in a dramatic play, entertaining their visitors.
“…when the girls saw the supper table, they could not believe their eyes. There was ice-cream, cake, fruit, and French chocolate! And in the middle of the table were flowers for each of the four actors”
The book opens and closes with a Christmas scene. But the closing chapter is a lot happier than the first, as Mr March returns from his work as a chaplain during the American Civil War.
“They drank healths, told stories, sang songs, ‘reminisced’, as the old folks say, and had a thoroughly good time. A sleigh ride had been planned, but the girls would not leave their father, so the guests departed early, and as twilight gathered, the happy family sat together round the fire”
What would a ‘Little Women Christmas’ include? Little Women begins in the late 1800s, and many of their traditions are ones that we are familiar with today. They would decorate Christmas trees, and their neighbourhood would be full of seasonal cheer — wreaths on doors and windows, stockings hanging by the fire, singing carols, exchanging gifts and greetings cards…
One of the most appealing aspects of Little Women is the coziness of the story. Louisa May Alcott writes endearingly about the four March sisters growing up in New England. The book has attracted criticism at times for being syrupy and sentimental, and it is true that some passages are rather didactic. But it is a classic that I first read as a child, along with the sequels, and it has a special place in my heart.
I was surprised to find out, however, that Christmas was actually outlawed in much of New England during part of the 17th century. The Puritans disapproved of all of the feasting, rituals and merriment of Christmas. Even though it wasn’t illegal after 1681, this Public Radio International article says it remained taboo:
“Prosecutions faded, but it remained culturally taboo. It remained a regular working day, and school day, in Massachusetts until 1870, when the federal government proclaimed it a national holiday. President Ulysses S. Grant thought having a national holiday on Christmas was a way to unify the country after the civil war.”
As far as I can remember, Alcott doesn’t mention any of this in her writing. The four March girls take delight in their Christmas festivities!
Wishing you a very literary Christmas!