Christmas is a lovely time of year. Although sometimes our expectations of it can be too high, and it fails to live up to the hype. For those who are only looking in on Christmas, not celebrating it, Christmases exist first and foremost in storybooks and in the imagination. My idealised version is born from a lifetime of reading about great Christmases. Last Christmas I blogged about The Holly and the Ivy, my favourite Christmas story for younger readers.
But when I was slightly older, it was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women that clinched the deal, and persuaded me that, despite being a Londoner, real Christmas was in the snowy suburbia of Massachusetts.
Little Women’s first word is Christmas:
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
And immediately the scene is set, and one of my favourite characters begins to take shape. That first Christmas in Little Women, with its “four young faces on which the firelight shone” paints a dampened Christmas, with ‘relative’ poverty, from which the girls start to learn valuable life lessons, such as sacrifice, generosity and charity. They are rewarded for their virtues by a neighbour with “distracting French bonbons” among other things.
But Christmas means more when it comes as a pause in working – and the work ethic theme runs throughout the novel. That the girls and their mother find meaning through labour, resonates with the Puritan teachings of New England where Alcott grew up. So the holiday of Christmas, when it comes, is even more joyful because of its juxtaposition with the rest of their year.
And Christmas means more than just a break from work in Little Women. The true meaning of Christmas is revealed in the girls’ thoughtfulness for others and most of all in ‘love’, in this case, their love for their family and in particular their mother, whom they surprise with gifts rather than having spent the money on themselves:
“There was a great deal of love done up in the few little bundles,” and
“There was a good deal of laughing, and kissing, and explaining, in the simple, loving fashion which makes these home-festivals so pleasant at the time, so sweet to remember long afterward, and then all fell to work.”
But it’s the Christmas with which Part One ends that competes with all the cheery Christmas films on TV, with its excess of delights, and a homecoming to rival The Railway Children.
“Now and then, in this work-a-day world, things do happen in the delightful story-book fashion, and what a comfort that is.”
They do have a sumptuous Christmas meal that year, in stark contrast to the beginning of the book in which they sacrificed their breakfast pancakes and muffins for the poor family down the road.
“There never was such a Christmas dinner as they had that day. The fat turkey was a sight to behold, when Hannah sent him up, stuffed, browned and decorated. So was the plum-pudding, which quite melted in one’s mouth; likewise the jellies, in which Amy revelled like a fly in a honey-pot.”
But mainly Christmas is about family reunions, and Alcott pitches it perfectly when Mr March returns from the war just in time for Christmas:
“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.”
Little Women may be an old classic, but it pushes the boundaries with its challenge to gender stereotyping, and the values it espouses. Moreover, to make modern day authors feel perfectly sick, Alcott apparently only started writing Little Women in May 1868, and the book was published in September (just four months later).
You can buy it here. Have a lovely bookish Christmas.