This Christmas will be quite a bit smaller than usual. Of course, with the economy still in the doldrums, I don’t think I’m alone in this. But it’s not like things are quite to the point of Jo’s moan: “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents!”
Looking back at kidlit history, there are plenty of bleak Christmases–or Christmases that would certianly be bleak by modern standards. Marmee has encouraged her children to not buy presents because “it is going to be a hard winter for everyone; and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army.” Of course, it being Little Women, after their initial conversations about spending money on themselves, they decide to buy gifts for Marmee. And then they sacrifice further by giving up their breakfast. I do not think I am quite this good. They are rewarded, of course, for their goodness with an evening feast from Mr. Laurence. After all, this is Little Women.
I’ve always been interested in when traditions get started and how quickly they take hold for the vast majority. Though children’s literature isn’t perhaps the best way to judge these transitions, it is one way to trace their paths into our daily lives. Little Women was published in 1868. Two classic Christmas traditions are casually mentioned–stockings (mainly, that they weren’t hanging up them up that year) and Santa Claus (a possible culprit for the Christmas feast?).
Based on some quick research, it appears that the stocking tradition came to America through European immigrants. The stocking story is part of the myth of St. Nicholas. Clement C. Moore first publshed A Visit From S.t Nicholas back in 1823–so stockings were certainly being hung by the chimney with care in at least a few American homes. This poem, and later the work of cartoonist Thomas Nast, helped cement our ideas about St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus.
The Santa Claus reference confused me a bit more. For the holiday event at the Village, kids meet St. Nicholas, in part because that particular name was more common in the 19th century. So what’s Santa doing in Little Women in 1868? Nast first drew the image that we now recognize as Santa–plump and bearded–in 1863.
In the coming years, he refined that image. My guess is that the 1860s were indeed a time of transition from St. Nicholas to Santa Claus. I do wonder what picture was in the girls’ head when they gave credit to Santa. Was he in red or green? Tall and skinny or short and plump? Perhaps being on the East Coast made that transition faster for Alcott.
What other Christmas traditions have you noticed in your reading? Have any of them surprised you?
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